Not many people get to receive first-hand knowledge about impact and influence of Dr. Martin Luther King.
But Dr. William C. Flippen, senior pastor at Atlanta's Piney Grove Baptist Church, not only received it, he learned about the legacy of Dr. King from the best possible source: his widow, Coretta Scott King, who taught a course on her husband's writings that Flippen has taken while pursuing his doctorate at Emory University.
Flippen, who delivered the MLK convocation address "The Audacity of Hope Revisited" Thursday at Fisk University's Memorial Chapel, says King's willingness to sacrifice remains one of the most important things about his life.
“I think what many people don't understand is that Rev. King was one of the last people around truly willing to die for what he believed in,” Flippen said. “He felt that if you didn't have anything you believed in strongly enough to sacrifice your life, then you didn't have anything to live for, and that's what made him such a strong advocate.”
Flippen later was given access to many of King's speeches and sermons and also met members of his family.
“Both he and Mrs. King were simple church people who felt called to help others. But through the principle of nonviolence he was able to change the laws of this country and to defeat a system that had oppressed generations of people for decades,” he recalled. “That's as effective an example of exercising power without having guns or an army that you will ever see.”
Flippen credits his time with the King family and his days in Nashville (he's a city native and a 1974 graduate of Fisk, while his wife is an Vanderbilt University alum) as highly influential in shaping the philosophy of activism and social involvement that's a big part of his current position at Piney Grove Baptist Church.
Piney Grove offers relationship and anger counseling, operates a food distribution service for seniors and the homeless and provides toys and school supplies in a partnership with the Carrie Steele orphanage. They also have a Frank Jones Scholarship available for members attending colleges and universities.
The reverend is also national chaplain for Alpha Phi Alpha, the nation's first intercollegiate fraternity created by African-Americans. He says Dr. King would have very mixed feelings about current conditions if he were alive today.
“On one hand he would be pleased about such things as the expansion of voting rights, fair housing laws, the number of black elected officials and the fact that the country has advanced far enough that a Barrack Obama could be elected President,” Flippen said. “He'd also be quite happy about the growth of the black middle class and the large number of black college graduates.
“But then he'd look at some of the things going on with young people and be quite dismayed. The idea that there are young people today with no hope or vision or idea about the future, that's really discouraging.”
King might also say, according to Flippen, that the country still has a long way to go in terms of race relations.
“When you look and see how segregated the society remains, there's still plenty of work to do in that regard,” Flippen said. “But most importantly, we've got to do a better job of convincing young people about the value of education.”
Another issue that deeply concerns Flippen is leadership and mentoring, something he sees as especially important when considering the age of numerous key figures in the civil rights and political arena.
“When you look at so many black leaders and see they didn't have any type of succession program established in their organizations you've got be concerned,” he said. “It's good to see Bernice King taking over in SCLC and Benjamin Jealous at the NAACP [and] we've got to have people in these organizations who can speak to the generations using iPODs and immersed in hip-hop culture and rap music. I think there's definitely still a place for the NAACP, Urban League and other civil rights groups. But they can't use the same rhetoric and tactics we used in the Sixties. Young people won't respond to that.”
As a youngster himself, Flippen had parents who recognized leadership abilities in him and encouraged him to succeed. He graduated with honors from Pearl High School, where he served as president of the student body during his senior year. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Mathematics and Business Administration from Fisk in 1974, so in many respects he was a child of Civil Rights Movement.
It is something else he shares with Dr. King, whose birthday we celebrate Thursday and with a legal holiday on Monday.
“Dr. King was a young man when he began in the civil rights movement and there were people then who said he shouldn't be speaking up because he's not old enough,” Flippen concluded. “But that's exactly what we need today, more input from young people. That's the only way we'll be able to continue making progress and help this society keep changing for the better.”