Stevenson, the pastor of Chicago's Parkway Garden Christian Church, asks King to speak at his church and reminisces about their days together at Morehouse College: “I recall Dr. Tillman's observation of you when you attempted to read LEAR for him: ‘King, you are illiterate.’”1
Dr. Martin Luther King
Minister, Dexter Ave. Church
Dear M. L.:
Our church is celebrating its 40th anniversary during the month of October. We would be extremely happy if we could involve you in this celebration as a speaker. If you can come, our Program Committee makes an initial offer of $100. and expenses. You, of course, can set your own fees if their offer is inadequate.
We have in mind a banquet setting in one of the Loop hotels on either the 16th or 23rd of October, depending on the date acceptable to you. If neither date is convenient for you we will take any date in October when you can come.
I hope that you can come to us. For forty years this church has wandered in the wilderness of petty things. Since my ministry began here, I have been pointing to wider horizons. We have moved into our first unit of a three-unit church; our membership has increased 50%. Two Palm Sundays ago we re-located in the new Parkway Garden Community under an arrangement of commity set up by the Church Federation of Greater Chicago. We are still small (only 350 members) but we aim at big things. Your coming would be our biggest undertaking.
I have never had the opportunity to tell you how proud I am of you. I boast of the fact that you and I took the same class in Shakespeare. Incidentally, I recall Dr. Tillman’s observation of you when you attempted to read LEAR for him: “King, you are illiterate.”2 Of course even then he was far from the truth. I often wonder if Tillman himself recalls this. You have gone on to become our most articulate and thought-provoking American.
How is Dexter Ave. Church? When I taught at Alabama State, I worshipped at Dexter. Vernon Johns was then the pastor. As you know he has a sharp tongue. He told the congregation once that there were greater men than he, but they could not get them. But “One greater than John(S) has come.”3
These little memories are not flatteries—you don’t need this. This is my way of saying that I identify myself in the setting of your past and hope this fact will help you to decide to take time from a busy schedule to share with my people the riches of your life. May I hear from you?
Lynward W. Stevenson
1. King declined the invitation in a 20 July letter, explaining that he had already accepted more speaking engagements than his doctors felt advisable. Lynward Willard Stevenson (1923–1982) was born in Louisville, Kentucky. After receiving a B.A. (1947) from Morehouse College, he taught English at Alabama State College. He received a B.Div. (1956) from the University of Chicago and shortly thereafter became the pastor of Parkway Garden Christian Church. He later served as pastor of Bethlehem Covenant Baptist Church (1962–1967) and Calvary Presbyterian Church (1967–1969). A longtime Chicago activist, Stevenson was president of the Woodlawn Organization (1964–1966) and assisted King’s integration efforts in the city during the mid-1960s.
2. Nathaniel P. Tillman gave King a “B” during both semesters of the 1946–1947 school year (seeIntroduction, The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., vol. 1: Called to Serve, January 1929–June 1951, ed. Clayborne Carson, Ralph E. Luker, Penny A. Russell [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992], P. 40).
3. Cf. Luke 7:28; Matthew 11:11. Vernon Johns was King’s immediate predecessor at Dexter.
MLKP-MBU, Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954-1968, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University, Boston, Mass.