A long-standing friend of the King family, Melvin Watson was one of a group of ministers in Atlanta, Georgia, committed to preaching the social gospel.
The son of Peter O. Watson, clerk and Sunday school superintendent of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Watson graduated in 1930 from Morehouse College with Martin Luther King, Sr. Encouraged to continue his religious education by theologian Howard Thurman, he studied at the Oberlin College Graduate School of Theology, where he received his BD (1932) and his MA in sacred theology (1934). Watson went on to obtain his doctorate in Theology (1948) at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. He was dean of men and professor of Religion at Shaw and Dillard Universities before returning to Morehouse as dean and professor of Philosophy and Religion in the School of Religion, where he remained for many years. Praised by King, Sr., as someone who was “among the few teachers who are able to preach and carry a Church with ease,” Watson became pastor of Liberty Baptist Church in Atlanta in 1958, where he served until his retirement in 1990 (King, Sr., 5 August 1955).
Watson’s support of a socially and politically involved ministry was evident early in his career. Watson believed that the church could “provide the spiritual dynamics for social action” (Watson, “The Church and Political Action”). Reverend Calvin O. Butts, III, one of Watson’s students, reminisced after Watson’s death: “He was preparing us to go out and disturb the conscience and rebel against injustice” (Henry, “Melvin H. Watson”).
As a young preacher King, Jr., looked to Watson’s ministry for guidance. When King delivered the sermon “Communism’s Challenge to Christianity” in August 1952, at Ebenezer, Watson was sitting in the congregation. Two days later Watson critiqued the sermon on communism in a letter to King. Disagreeing with King’s interpretation of the concept of materialism, Watson cautioned him to differentiate between the Marxist and ancient Greek meanings of the term, but praised him generally for doing a “fine job” (Papers 2:157). After visiting the Kings in 1954 Watson praised King’s pastorate: “You are definitely off to a promising start, and I believe the Lord is with you. You have my prayers and best wishes for continued growth in spiritual stature and in the capacity to serve the people” (Papers 2:321).
Derrick Henry, “Melvin H. Watson, 98, Trained Civil Rights Leader,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 24 June 2006.
King, Sr., to Watson, 5 August 1955, EBCR.
Watson, “The Church and Political Action,” Journal of Religious Thought 8, no. 2 (Spring/Summer 1951): 114–124.
Watson to King, 14 August 1952, in Papers 2:156–157.
Watson to King, 15 December 1954, in Papers 2:321.