"To preserve the reputation of the Fraternity unsullied must be your constant care."

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Freemasons


A bill was just signed into law by President Trump aboard Air Force One while he was visiting Atlanta, Georgia on Monday. A week before the national holiday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Donald Trump signed into law the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park Act of 2017. Alveda King, the niece of the slain civil rights leader, joined the President for the mostly private signing ceremony. It didn't get much press notice, didn't make the nightly news, and at first glance, it might be hard to see the connection to Freemasonry. 

Yet, it's actually central to this new Act.


The Auburn Avenue Prince Hall Masonic Temple in Atlanta, Georgia

The bill was sponsored by Rep. John Lewis, (D-GA). What this new law signed by President Trump does is to establish the area around Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthplace in Atlanta to officially become a national historical park, making it the first such park in Georgia. (It's currently just designated as a national historic site, and this changes its status and importance within the National Park Service system.) The site is established "to preserve, protect, and interpret for the benefit, inspiration, and education of present and future generations, the places where Martin Luther King, Jr. was born, where he lived, worked, and worshiped, and where he is buried, while ensuring connections are made to his life and legacy." It already includes King's birthplace, the church where he was baptized, and his burial place. But the legislation also slightly enlarges the existing designated area in order to also specifically include Atlanta's Auburn Avenue Prince Hall Masonic Temple. 




After the end of our Civil War in 1865, Freemasonry among African Americans began to spread from the Northern states into the South, where it had previously been a damned dangerous thing to openly attempt. The twists and turns of segregated Freemasonry in America are complex, and the story does not lend itself to simple explanations. Freemasonry was far from the only lofty-sounding organization that talked about equality while strictly enforcing a color barrier. Countless other fraternal groups had their own parallel black and white counterparts that operated without any acknowledgement between each other.  When slavery was abolished, the practices of "separate but equal' institutions sprouted and flourished, and by 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson carved them into stone for another half century.

After the war, three black lodges were soon organized in Georgia in 1866, forming into an F&AM grand lodge by 1870. Because the National Compact era was going through its own internal and external pangs and schisms, a second AF&AM grand lodge was formed in 1874, with both finally merging in 1888. Both groups could trace their origins back to Prince Hall's English chartered African Lodge No. 459 in Boston. Today, that merged body is the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Georgia, F&AM.

In 1871, Atlanta's first lodge of African Americans was chartered, St. James Lodge No. 4 (F&AM), with Frances J. Peck as its Worshipful Master. Peck was also the pastor of Atlanta's Big Bethal African Methodist Episcopal Church at the time, the oldest predominately African American congregation in metropolitan Atlanta. The church became a center of the black community there, as well as a gathering place for social action. The strong connection between Big Bethal and St. James Lodge also made Freemasonry among Atlanta's black population a vital part of that community, binding faith and fraternalism, and creating a strong atmosphere for leadership at every level within the then still deeply segregated society. 

John Wesley Dobbs and Rev. Emory Searcy dedicating a local cornerstone in about 1956


Starting in 1937, the Prince Hall Masonic Temple and the attached Tabor Building at 332-34 Auburn Avenue were built. The main Renaissance Revival-style building was designed by architects Charles Hopson and Ross Howard at the behest of then Grand Master, John Wesley Dobbs. Atlanta at that time was home to about 90,000 African Americans, and Dobbs was instrumental as a local political leader and organizer. He had been elected as the 10th Grand Master of the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Georgia in 1932. Dobbs would serve as Grand Master in Georgia for 29 years, 1932-1961, and was widely known in Atlanta simply as "The Grand" and the unofficial "Mayor of Auburn Avenue." 

At the time, Auburn Avenue was a prosperous commercial district in Atlanta. If you have any question just how popular fraternalism was in the black community in the 20th century, consider that by 1945, along with the Masons and the Odd Fellows (who had their own enormous theater and auditorium building), there were twenty-five other fraternal groups also located on Auburn Avenue.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a Mason during his lifetime, but both his father and his grandfather were Prince Hall Masons. Interviews from 1968 indicate that Grand Master X. L. Neal of the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Georgia had arranged for Dr. King to become a Freemason upon his return to Atlanta that year. King's assassination in Memphis on April 4th of 1968 had abruptly prevented that event from happening. 

But that was not the end of the question about King's association with Freemasonry. Not by a long shot.

Dr. Martin Luther King speaking at the Prince Hall Masonic Temple in Columbus, Georgia, 
circa 1959. Behind him sits Grand Master John Wesley Dobbs. 


Starting in 2000, a rumor snowballed into a controversy, widely claiming that sometime between 1999 and 2000, then Grand Master Benjamin Barksdale of the MWPHGL of Georgia made Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a Mason "at sight" posthumously. As word spread of it, the Masonic world went berserk. Shrieks over the violation of "Landmarks" went out around the internet and in Masonic magazines, and there was a great gnashing of teeth. 

A decade after the alleged incident, the website for the MWPHGL of Georgia said the following about it:
“There is one local Masonic legend that claims that Dr. King, Jr. was good friends with Grand Master X.L. Neal, both of whom came out of Morehouse College. The legend claims that Grand Master Neal had promised to make Dr. King a Mason when he came back from the Sanitation Strike in Memphis; but as fate would have it, Dr. King never made it back from Memphis. However, in 1999, Grand Master Benjamin Barksdale gave him a posthumous honor by declaring him a member of the Craft and presenting it to his widow, Coretta Scott King, at a Morehouse celebration for our Civil Rights icon.”
At the time this allegedly happened, it was one of those explosive topics guaranteed to start a good old fashioned flame war in the early days of online Masonic discussion groups. Masons all over the world went collectively hysterical, and railed that no grand master could constitutionally confer the degrees of Masonry on a dead man. Conflicting definitions of making Masons "at sight" got trotted out and endlessly flogged over jurisdictional differences, along with the usual sagely chin wagging and general air bending. Most wound up dejectedly admitting that grand masters will do whatever they intend to do, like it or not, and if their own members of their grand lodge don't fix problems left in their wake, all the carping in the world isn't going to change anything. Nevertheless, there remain today a few lists of "Famous Freemasons" floating around that include King as a Mason without explanation. 

And yet, no one who was actually there that day finally stepped forward to definitively say whether or not the action really even took place.

Finally in 2012, in Vol. 39, No. 1 of the Phylaxis Magazine (p. 16), Brother Burrell D. Parmer of the PHGL of Texas researched this contentious and thorny event, and actually decided to go straight to the source. Brother Parmer actually asked PGM Barksdale what happened. 

The event in question occurred  at King's alma mater, Morehouse College. On April 1st, 2000, 'Millennium Sunday,' Dr. Lawrence Carter officially founded the 'Gandhi King Ikeda Hassan Institute for Ethics and Reconciliation.' That Sunday was the 40th anniversary of the Atlanta Civil Rights Movement and the inaugural celebration of the 'Season of Nonviolence' in 1960. Among the dignitaries assembled there that day were then Grand Master Barksdale, Mrs. Coretta Scott King, and Martin Luther King III, along with members of the Gandhi family

Prince Hall Masons had a longstanding connection to the site at Morehouse College, and they had dedicated the cornerstone in 1992 for the Martin Luther King, Jr. International Chapel on the Morehouse campus where the event in 2000 took place. The gathering on Millennium Sunday was for the unveiling of a large bronze plaque that contains the entire text of King's famous “I Have a Dream Speech.” An estimated 1,000 people attended that day, including 200 PHA Masons dressed n full regalia. It was when GM Barksdale stepped to the podium and spoke that the confusion came about. 

Parmer's article explains, in part:
As the event occurred over a decade ago, PGM Barksdale cannot recollect the date or year, but remembers that he did not make Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a Mason, neither “at Sight” nor provide him with honorary membership posthumously. “Dr. King is not a Mason; you cannot make a dead person a Freemason,” said PGM Barksdale.

To the reference that GM Dr. X.L. Neal stated that he will make Dr. King a Prince Hall Mason “at Sight” when he returned from Memphis:

“The above is true. I was Grand Senior Warden when GM Neal made the statement which was in the presence of the Grand Lodge membership in Augusta, GA,” said PGM Barksdale. “Again Dr. King was never a Prince Hall Mason; however, with the permission of Mrs. Coretta Scott King, I was given permission to name a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholarship to assist a worthy young man to attend Morehouse College.”

[Past Master Douglas Evans, Past Grand Historian of Georgia] remembers some details about that day.
“I was in the audience as a young five-year-old Mason when (an) honor was read by PGM Barksdale in the company of Mrs. King and King III along with other Grand Lodge officers while on stage inside the King Chapel, and I, as many others, thought that they were making Dr. King a ‘Mason at Sight,’” said PM Evans. “I do not think that PGM Barksdale may have made it clear that a dead person could not be made a Mason.”

“I believe that during the ceremony as Mrs. King was on the stage was when PGM Barksdale and the Masons announced that it was “honoring Dr. King’s death posthumously.” None of us really knew what this meant since it wasn’t previously disclosed to us before the event,” said PM Evans. “We heard it all at the same time. I took it as something you might honor the governor or someone with, but the word posthumously made many feel as if Dr. King was being given the honor of being a Mason. I tend to believe that this was not the intent of PGM Barksdale but maybe the wording of the statement was not filtered or edited enough.”

According to PM Evans there was neither a proclamation nor similar communications that would have informed the Craft that such an honor of membership for Dr. King would be bestowed.

“I’ll be the first to echo PGM Barksdale’s statement that he did not make Dr. King a Mason. He couldn’t if he tried; it’s unmasonic,” said PM Evans. “I will offer that the language used at that ceremony may have been misleading.”
“During my historical tours in Atlanta, I offer that Dr. King is NOT a Mason, but an Alpha (a Greek college fraternity). If he had lived longer we believe that he would have joined since his father (Daddy King) and grandfather were all preachers and Prince Hall Masons,” said PM Evans. “We think Dr. King would have joined W. C. Thomas Lodge No. 112 since it is thought that this is where Daddy King was Raised, and due to GM Neal belonging to the same Lodge and knowing Dr. King from Morehouse College.”
In any case, the real reason for the expansion of the historical site in this new legislation Trump signed is because Atlanta's Prince Hall Temple was where the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) established its initial headquarters on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta in 1957. That historic civil rights organization was co-founded by Dr. King, who also served as its first president until his murder in 1968. The SCLC became one of the most prominent non-violent groups in the country, and was instrumental in the growing efforts to finally end racial segregation in the U.S., starting in the late 1950s.

The cooperation between Prince Hall Masons, their temples. and civil rights groups was not at all unusual. These landmark buildings frequently were also home to offices of black professionals like lawyers, doctors, dentists, and accountants, along with other businesses and organizations vital to their segregated communities. Birmingham, Alabama's historic Colored Masonic Temple, for example, was built by the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge, Free and Accepted Masons of Alabama between 1922-24. That temple became the headquarters of the NAACP in Alabama and housed the legal teams during the time of the Freedom Riders in the 1960s. It was declared by the National Parks Service in 2016 as part of the History Birmingham Civil Rights District, a wide area of that city that encompasses many significant buildings in the same general area. 

Trump also signed two other related bills into law on Monday. The African American Civil Rights Network Act of 2017 instructs the National Park Service to link together various historical sites related to the civil rights movement, making it easier to trace the development, growth and success of the fight against racial segregation. He also signed the 400 Years of African-American History Commission Act to commemorate the arrival of the first Africans in the English colonies at Point Comfort, Virginia. in 1619.

I would be remiss if I didn't add as a footnote to this post that the Grand Lodge of Georgia F&AM at their annual meeting in October 2017 tabled without action yet another attempt at recognition of the MW Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Georgia, in spite of now PGM Gary Leazer's efforts and the encouragement of several others. I've lost track at this point of how many times the Prince Hall Masons have been turned down or ignored in Georgia. Alabama, on the other hand, passed joint recognition with their Prince Hall counterparts on November 14, 2017. Counting Georgia, there remain eight U.S. states that continue to deny Prince Hall recognition. 

A visual aid may be helpful to understanding this.


There is one last bit of confusion over Martin Luther King and Freemasonry. His final speech before his assassination on April 4th of 1968, his stirring "I've Been To The Mountaintop" address, was given in Memphis, Tennessee at the Church of God in Christ headquarters. That landmark building is known as "Mason Temple," but it was not then, and never has been, a Masonic temple. It was purpose built as a church and enormous auditorium complex in 1945, and is actually named for Bishop C. H. Mason of Memphis, the church's founder. 

1 comment:

  1. A masterful summary of the situation, of permanent value.

    ReplyDelete

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