Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, and Martin Luther King Jr.

Technology and a Trinity

It was Monday in early April in Chicago. My parents, my two brothers and I were walking along Western Avenue heading south toward the Allied Electronics store. It was cloudy and chilly, but at least the rain had stopped.

I was ten years old and had been wanting to visit that store since first hearing about it, and my father was a hi-fi nut, so he wanted to go too.

Traffic coming from the south picked up, both cars and pedestrians, and we started hearing sirens. Dad noticed a car with a smashed windshield and realized something really bad was going on and we needed to get out of there.

We ducked into a department store to get away from Western Avenue and to go out the back entrance, the store was closing and rolling down the steel doors over its entrances as we made our way through, and this was around 10 in the morning, something was very wrong.
Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated the evening before. My parents knew about it and were a bit concerned about what might happen. So, while they were surprised at what we almost walked into they had been vigilant, with good reason as it turned out.

We quickly walked back to our hotel and stayed there for the next two days while Chicago burned, just sneaking out long enough to see “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Goodman’s Children’s Theater.

The show was sold out, and we were the only people in the audience.

From our hotel room we could see National Guard APCs passing by on the streets below our window and across the rooftops a broadcasting tower with the logo of Channel 7 on it. It was a numeral “7” surrounded by a circle. Red light would gradually illuminate the “7”, then the circle would illuminate the same way until you could see a glowing red “7” surrounded by a circle. Then the light would go out and the cycle would repeat itself.

Half a century later I can still see that sign, and while the Allied store escaped unscathed with the riots only about a block away I never did get there.

I was a ten-year-old boy from Holland, Michigan. There were no black people in that small western Michigan town in those days, the civil rights struggle and Dr. King were something in the news that the grownups paid attention to, not something that affected my life, not until that dark day.
The assassination of Dr. King was shocking and terrible, but as surprising as it was the events leading up to it went back a very long time, all the way back to the 16th century… with a stop in Nazi Germany.

Johann Tetzel – Wikipedia image

Johann Tetzel was a salesman, he was a good one with a unique product to sell. His employer, Albert of Brandenburg, was also deeply in debt and anxious for Tetzel to sell as much as he could.

Tetzel wasn’t just a salesman, he was also a Catholic Friar and what he was selling were indulgences. Indulgences were documents that according to the Church excused whoever was named on them from an amount of time in purgatory to atone for sins. In effect these were “get out of Hell free” cards, and in 1517 Tetzel started selling these in Germany.

Tetzel wasn’t just selling these to people for their own sins, he was also promoting them as being able to reduce the time the already dead would spend in purgatory, and the more that was paid, the less time in purgatory. As he said, “When the coin in the coffer rings/the soul from purgatory springs.” Thus, enticing people to buy indulgences for their already departed friends and relatives.

And most people had a lot of departed friends and relatives. In 16th century Europe half of all children died before reaching adulthood, medical care as we know it didn’t exist, and a poor harvest meant hunger and maybe even starvation for the poor.

Martin Luther – Painting by Lucas Cranach

Martin Luther was a 31-year-old Augustinian monk and scholar in Wittenberg, Saxony. He was no ordinary monk, Luther had a master’s from the University of Erfurt, and after nearly being hit by lightning had taken the vows and become a serious Biblical scholar, receiving his doctorate and becoming a professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Wittenberg. For a year he was also the German Augustinian monasteries representative in Rome.

This was a devout man who knew the Bible as well as anyone.

Around this time people were starting to quietly question the Church’s interpretation of the Bible, and specifically regarding salvation. Luther found in Christ’s teachings that salvation could only be received by God’s grace alone, and one received God’s grace by having faith in him, not by good deeds, and certainly not by any actions of the Church.

Augustus, the founder of Luther’s order, also believed that truth could only be found in the Bible, and that if the Church’s teachings or actions were contrary to the Bible then the Church was wrong.
Then Tetzel arrived in Wittenberg, offering salvation for the living and the dead in exchange for a few coins.

For Martin Luther, this situation was getting intolerable.

Martin Luther acted, in the way a devout member of the church and scholar should. He wrote his famous 95 Theses and sent them to his Archbishop. It is quite unlikely that he nailed them to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg as is commonly believed. It’s more likely that he did nothing more than send them to his Bishop, but that was enough.

The Theses weren’t a series of demands, they were questions about what the Church was doing, and he was looking to start a conversation about them. Luther was trying to start a debate, not a revolution.

It didn’t work, there was too much money involved and that was a conversation the Church didn’t want to have.

So, Luther started preaching on God’s grace, faith, against the money-making practices of the Catholic Church, and he started writing.

16th Century Printing Press – Wikipedia image

In the early 16th century the printing press was still pretty new, this was the high technology information distribution technology of it’s day, much like the internet in the 1990’s, and the printers were hungry for content, and Luther was providing content.

Luther wrote pamphlets and books, LOTS of pamphlets and books. He also translated the Bible into German, so normal people could read it without needing to be able to read Latin. By one account a third of all of the books published in German in the first part of the 16th century were written by Martin Luther.

Luther’s 95 Theses, along with those pamphlets and books were very widely distributed making Luther one of the most famous men in Germany.

In 1520 the Church had enough. Pope Leo X sent a demand to Luther that he present himself in Rome within 60 days to answer charges of heresy. Luther refused to show up and was excommunicated by the Church. Luther then publicly burned the Pope’s order in a hospital’s burn pit.

At this point the Church would have almost certainly had him executed, or the local authorities cause him to disappear, people had been executed for less, but Luther was too well known and there would have been a lot of popular unrest if anything happened to him.
Luther’s fame, due to his works being distributed with new technology, kept him alive, and so he was able to change the world.

From Wittenberg in the 16th century the story now moves about 60 miles northeast and 400 years into the future, to 1934 Berlin, the capital of Nazi Germany.


Reverend Michael King, of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and nine other black pastors were on their way to the Fifth World Baptist Conference in Berlin, Germany. They sailed to France, then took a train through Italy, traveled on to Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and to what is now Israel. In the Reverend King’s words, “… when I saw with my own eyes the places where Jesus had lived and taught, a life spent in the ministry seemed to be to be even more compelling”.

Reverend King, along with many of the other pastors traveling to the conference, was quite concerned about the reception they would get in Germany. Tensions were further heightened because the anti-Nazi Austrian Chancellor, Engelbert Dollfuss, had just been assassinated in a failed coup attempt orchestrated by the German government.

Reverend John W. Bradbury of Boston wrote:” Crossing the border was a dreaded experience. After all I had read in American and foreign newspapers I was prepared for a tense atmosphere. The impression lingered around me that police would be everywhere; spies would be listening to our talk; danger lurked around the corner; and many similar kinds of bogies.

John Sampey, of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary wrote, “While everywhere the Baptists from other lands were treated with marked courtesy, some of us felt that our German Baptist brethren were uncertain and disturbed concerning their future. They talked little, but the atmosphere seemed to some of us charged with uneasiness and fear. . . . Our Baptist brethren in Germany face a very grave crisis. They will find it difficult to be loyal both to Hitler and the Lord Jesus.”

Volksempfänger “Peoples Receiver”) pamphlet

As the Reverend Sampey noted pastors found their concerns about their welcome in Germany to be unwarranted. By all reports the German people were friendly, helpful and considerate, but the pastors also found Nazi banners, posters and soldiers everywhere, and Hitler’s voice seemed to boom out of every radio and loudspeaker.

Radio was still a new technology in the 1930’s and the German government took steps to make sure that every German family could have a radio, and made available the “Volksempfänger” a radio that was specially designed to be low in cost and only able to pick up German government broadcasts.
Josef Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister stated “The radio will be to the twentieth century what the press was to the nineteenth”

Like the new technology of the 16th century helped Luther change the world for the better the new technology of the early 20th century was used with great effect by Hitler to change the world for the worst.

As Albert Speer said at the Nuremberg trials, “Through technical devices like the radio and loudspeaker, 80 million people were deprived of independent thought. It was thereby possible to subject them to the will of one man.

The Baptist pastors had somewhat mixed feelings about Hitler. While they didn’t like dictators, they did like that pornography had been outlawed and burned, that Hitler himself didn’t drink or smoke, and that the Germans had outlawed women smoking and wearing lipstick in public. Many of them also approved of the fact that the Germans were putting controls on Jews, believing (as was common in those days), that the Jews had too much power.

Anti-Semitism was a fact of American life in those days. Prominent people such as Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford were blatantly anti-Semitic. Ford had purchased the newspaper “The Dearborn Independent”, which then started attacking the “International Jew” and reprinted the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, created in 1905 by the Czar to foment anti-Semitism. (1)
Charles Lindbergh complained about the Jews “large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.” (2)

Ford shut down the newspaper and publicly retracted his anti-Semitic views, but continued to rail against the “international bankers” and in 1938 received the Grand Cross of the German Eagle from the Nazi government.

M. E. Dodd, President of the Southern Baptist Convention, said Jews: “were not to be blamed for the intelligence and strength, so characteristic of their race” he claimed they were using those abilities “for self-aggrandizement to the injury of the German people.

Of course, the pastors had no way of knowing what was to come.

Clarence W. Sorensen photo from UW Libraries

The Fifth World Baptist Conference was held at the Kaiserdamm Hall in Berlin. This was a large, well lit, airy, modern facility with arched, steel beams holding up a roof that had huge skylights in it. Hanging on both sides of the room were flags of each of the nations represented at the conference, with large Nazi banners in the center.

At the front of the room a large painting depicted three historic Baptist men standing before the cross, to the right was a large Nazi banner. A few weeks before Adolf Hitler had addressed 15,000 Germans from this same platform.

In the end the Congress unanimously passed a resolution that repudiated the Nazi’s treatment of their fellow human beings, in part it said:

This Congress deplores and condemns as a violation of the law of God the Heavenly Father, all racial animosity, and every form of oppression or unfair discrimination toward the Jews, toward coloured people, or toward subject races in any part of the world.

For the Reverend King this trip was a life changing experience. In addition to seeing the Holy lands and being involved issuing the declaration he also learned a lot about the 16-century reformer Martin Luther. In fact, the Reverend Michael King was so impressed with what he learned about Martin Luther and his battles against injustice that when the Reverend King returned to Atlanta he changed his name to Martin Luther King and changed the name of his five-year-old son to Martin Luther King Junior.

By all accounts Michael King, now Reverend Martin Luther King, was an extraordinary man. Born to sharecroppers in Stockbridge, Georgia he moved to Atlanta at the age of 14 and eventually became the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, which he built into one of the most important black churches in Atlanta. He also had little regard for “the arrangement”, as he referred to how blacks and whites dealt with each other in those days. In one famous incident the car he was driving was stopped by a police officer. The white officer referred to him as “boy”, and his response was to point at his son, the young Martin Luther King Jr., and say “This is a boy, I’m a man; until you call me one, I will not listen to you.”

Reverend King was also a leader in ending Georgia’s Jim Crow laws, was the head of the Atlanta NAACP, and was instrumental in getting Atlanta’s black school teachers pay to be equal to the white teachers.

He also knew tragedy well, not only was his son, Martin Luther King Jr. murdered, but his youngest son drowned and his wife, Alberta, was shot and killed while playing “The Lord’s Prayer” on the church’s organ. In spite of all that he famously stated “I cannot hate any man!”

And like Martin Luther and Hitler the Reverend King used technology to help spread his message, broadcasting on Atlanta’s WAEC radio station for many years.

There are a couple of interesting parallels between the Germany of Martin Luther’s day and the United States in the 50’s and 60’s. In Germany there was increasing awareness and resentment of the Catholic Church, which in many ways was the government, along with the rise of the new information distribution technology, the printing press. In the United States it was the black community becoming increasingly dissatisfied with “the arrangement” and the rise of television, particularly television news.


Phillips TV from the late 1950s

Television was still in its early days, in 1950 only 9% of American households had a television set. By 1960 that figure had shot up to 90%. Like the printing press in Luther’s day television was hungry for content. Even more importantly the fledgling TV network news shows were looking for credibility and for dramatic material that would attract viewers.

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and his people were well aware of the impact television could have on their cause worked hard to make the best of it.

In 1955, on the eve of the Montgomery bus boycott, Reverend King made a speech before the Montgomery Improvement Association. After King completed his speech some members of the press tried to slip out, including a cameraman, Laurens Pierce. Ralph Abernathy was the next speaker and called them back saying “… I certainly hope the television man will come back, you know, it isn’t fair to get part of it. I want you to get all of it..”

After the Montgomery bus boycott came the even more dramatic events in Little Rock with the Little Rock Nine being the first black students to go to Central High School.
After the Supreme Court ordered the school be desegregated Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus sent in the National Guard to keep the students out. A few weeks later federal judge Richard Davies ordered the Guard out, and it was expected the local police would keep the students out. The police didn’t, the mob did.

Members of the 101st Airborne escorting the Little Rock Nine into Central High School – Library of Congress photo

Then President Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne and under the protection of the US Army and the now federalized Arkansas National Guard the students were finally able to attend the school.

All this was seen on TV screens all across the nation. It’s powerful to watch a half century later, it must have been riveting when it was on the nightly news.

As Julian Bond wrote: “The Little Rock crisis was made for television. It had drama, tension, and the ever-present whiff of real and threatened violence, all concentrated into a manageable geographic area and relatively brief time frame,” he wrote. “The other classic set-piece confrontations of the southern Movement—Ole Miss, 

Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, and Selma—would all follow much the same pattern.

President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act into law with Martin Luther King Jr. watching – National Archives photo

And the pattern worked, the television news exposure helped get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the voting Rights Act of 1965 passed into law.

It was also carefully managed, both by the activists and the TV networks. Both wanted America to see an idealized “civil-rights subject”. A black man or woman who was a hard working, good citizen who was being victimized by segregation. They wanted us to see the blacks being pulled from lunch counters, hit by police fire hoses, and bravely making their way though mobs of angry white people.

They did not want the American public to see the militant “Black Power” types demanding power by any means necessary.

If it wasn’t for the new technology of television it’s likely that civil rights legislation wouldn’t have been passed for years, maybe decades.
But the legislation passed, and with fits and starts Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream started coming true.

Riot Aftermath – Library of Congress photo

He saw the beginnings of it, but no more than that, because on April 4th, 1968 at the age of 39 he was shot and killed as he stood on his hotel room balcony.
That night riots began in Washington spreading to Chicago and many other cities over the next few days.

Among many other people the Chicago riot affected a family from Holland Michigan there to see “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Goodman’s Children’s Theater. The play was sold out, and they were the only ones there.