Book Review: No Turning Back – My Summer with Daddy King (Jan-Feb 2008)

By Matt Dabbs

by Greg Taylor
January – February, 2008

By Gurdon Brewster
ISBN 978-1-57075-728-0
$18 Hardcover
October 2007 release
Orbis Books
Maryknoll, New York

Gurdon Brewster was a young white northern Episcopalian who was transformed in the summer of 1961 by living and working with a black Baptist preacher in the South in the 1960s—Reverend King.

The book is about the lesser-known story Reverend King, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s father, and describes with the poignancy of a Episcopalian and the emotion of a Baptist, encounters with members of Ebenezer Baptist, which Rev. King and Dr. King co-pastored.

He’d volunteered as part of the Student Interracial Ministry at Union Theological Seminar in New York, but his seminary training could not prepare him for what he’d experience that summer in Atlanta. Leading a black student group from Ebenezer Baptist Church, Brewster felt the sting of separate but not equal; he was shocked that few white Christians joined, and after one meeting at a white church, he was met in the parking lot and called a “nigger lovin’ son of a bitch.”

Brewster stayed the summer with Rev. and Mrs. King. So when Brewster was threatened, wrestled with injustice he was seeing, Rev. King helped interpret during daily breakfast conversations in which he exhorted him, saying, “Pick yourself up, Brewster.” Rev. King had been knocked down many times. Even blacks would say, “Don’t rock the boat, King!”

Gurdon BrewsterBut King knew “soonism” meant “never” unless he and other black leaders took action. And Rev. King was a man of action, having preached at Ebenezer since the 1930s, he knew how to “bring the congregation to a fervor,” and most Americans today know his son had and developed the same gift. One member of Ebenezer said you knew they were really preaching when the women started throwing their wigs in the air during the sermon.

Brewster’s transformation came through experiencing life with Ebenezer Baptist members, through their stories, through their songs that touched him to the core, brought emotion he’d never known before. The songs were not just rocking spirituals but healing hymns that blacks sang because they’d had their houses burned, been kicked off land, been beaten, had family members lynched.

Another turning point came for Brewster when a woman asked him if any of these things had happened to him or his family. He said no. “Then what do you have to sing about?” she asked him. He felt a great rift between them he felt he couldn’t cross. After a long silence, she went back to singing, “Into my heart, into my heart, Lord Jesus” and Brewster joined in, feeling more deeply that her pain was his pain. “As I began to relax into the hymn, I could feel the power of her deep faith. The great chasm between us seemed to melt away.”

He’d learned by walking with the Ebenezer students and pasturing under the tutelage of the Kings, choosing with them to be rejected at lunch counters and water fountains and restrooms that were “white only,” that the way of non-violence being advocated by Dr. King was the only way to respond to an angry hateful mob.

When Daddy King and Mrs. King asked if he’d become Baptist during that summer, Brewster said, “I’m an Episcopalian with a Baptist flair.” But he wasn’t just assimilating Baptist ways. He was joining a non-violent movement of blacks when most white Christians refused to be associated—most moved so cautiously that they thought police should be required at a rare mixed-race youth rally with several black students from the Baptist Church.

Rev. King’s story is a modern day Job story, having lost both his son and wife to gunmen and M.L.’s brother, A.D., in a swimming accident. Speaking at Cornell University, where Brewster served thirty-five years as chaplain, Rev. King said in the early 1980s, shortly before his death, “God has taken much away from me, but God has given to me even more. I am a grateful man. Brewster is like a son to me.”

Before that summer Brewster had never prayed without a Book of Common Prayer, had never preached, had never drunk deeply from the well of spiritual songs and hymns that had been sung for decades in black Baptist churches, labor and civil rights rallies. “We shall overcome” was a song that cut a river deep into Brewster’s soul, and he sang the song with Dr. King as they walked with 25,000 over the Edmund Pettus Bridge to Montgomery.

I underestimated the force of this book when I started reading, but I was profoundly moved by the transformation that took place in Brewster, the descriptions of and conversations with Brewster’s new-found friends, the way he absorbed the faith of women and men through their prayers and songs and sermons and non-violent—even humorous—responses to hatred from whites. He joined blacks in their struggle and was never the same again, and he felt from that summer “a river running deep underground, which carries the spirit of the Ebenezer of 1961 in my soul.”

The book is rich in dialogue with members of the Ebenezer community who learned through struggle and suffering, who endured through singing and prayer and the sermons that lifted them out of resentment and hate and fear on the wings of God’s justice and mercy and love.New Wineskins

Greg TaylorGreg Taylor lived in Uganda seven years, where he and his wife, Jill, worked with a church planting team that participated in God’s movement to help start and nurture about 60 churches. Greg is managing editor of New Wineskins (www.wineskins.org) and is associate minister for the Garnett Church of Christ in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He co-authored How to get ready for short-term missions (Thomas Nelson, 2006). His novel, set in Africa in the 1920s, is titled High Places (Leafwood, 2004). He co-authored with John Mark Hicks, Down in the River to Pray: Revisioning Baptism as God’s Transforming Work. His blog is [http://gregtaylor.cc].

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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