Sunstone and the Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Through his words, through his ethics, and even through a 2003 keynote symposium lecture from his eldest living son, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has left a beautiful legacy behind him in the Sunstone community. In a year that marks the 50th anniversary of the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, Sunstone has created this online multimedia exhibit to honor and remember Dr. King.


2003: Martin Luther King, III, gives the keynote speech at a Sunstone symposium

Martin Luther King, III, was the inaugural Smith-Pettit lecturer at the 2003 Sunstone summer symposium. To this day, Sunstone continues this annual tradition of opening it summertime Utah symposium with a free evening lecture for the public.
(Source: Sunstone archives)

In July 2003, Dr. King’s first son, Martin Luther King, III, came to Salt Lake City, as the keynote guest lecturer in Sunstone‘s Smith-Pettit summer lecture series. Joining him in attendance were such guests as Jeanetta Williams, president of the Salt Lake branch of the NAACP, and Darius Gray, one of the founders of the Genesis Group, a fellowship group for African-American Mormons. Dan Wotherspoon, who was then serving as executive director of Sunstone, delivered the following remarks by way of introduction:

In his April 1963 letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr wrote:

“I must confess that I am not afraid of the word tension. I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth.”

Elsewhere in the letter, he continues that he and his colleagues in the struggle for civil rights

. . . are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

These are wise and powerful words which speak to several truths that should animate the purposes of tonight’s gathering, as well as their being fully appropriate for illustrating the positive intent behind the Sunstone symposium which follows for the next three days.

These words remind us first, that good people with good intentions can disagree with each other, and yet the tension the exists within their different views and approaches does not need to be seen as a negative, as a drain, but can instead be “creative tension”—energy that can compel us to better ideas, better plans, better actions.

Second, these words remind us that truths can only work their power, and healing can only begin, when problems and issues are brought into the light of day.

And third, that at the heart of this kind of work is an abiding trust in human goodness, a conviction that conscience works, that when we are made aware of issues and pain and suffering, that we individually, as well as collectively, will ultimately choose to act as agents for justice and human dignity.

We’re excited to hear from Mr. King tonight, and we trust that as difficult things are brought to discussion in portions of his remarks that we will listen carefully, knowing they will be spoken in the spirit and trust in us just described.

King’s remarks, titled “A Dream Deferred,’ commented on the ways in which society had both progressed and failed to progressed in the time that had elapsed since his father’s death. The Smith-Pettit lecture tradition that began with Martin Luther King, III, continues today. Each summer, the annual Utah Sunstone symposium opens with a free evening lecture where a thoughtful intellectual comes to offer insights about the contextual role of Mormonism within the world. 


“I felt in the middle of a miracle…”
(Source: Sunstone archives)

1991: Sunstone Magazine features beautiful reflections on a
cross-cultural MLK Day service held in a Latter-day Saint stake building

Sunstone readers will enjoy the experience of reading this fond archived piece by Carol Lynn Pearson. Attending an interfaith MLK Day service in her Oakland California stake, Pearson reflected on the beautiful sights that stood before her eyes. She wrote,

Down the aisle to the music of the choir and organ and tambourine, walked the dignitaries: several Catholic priests in robes, a Jewish rabbi, a female Unitarian pastor, a Baptist minister, a Greek Orthodox father, and my wonderful stake president, Gary Anderson. I burst into tears, and my tears did not stop for a few minutes. I felt in the middle of a miracle: all these magnificent people gathered together here on Mormon territory, in a building that my tithing had helped to erect.

Click here to read more of Pearson’s archived thoughts from that day.


2011: A Sunstone Symposium session commemorates
the relationship between Mormonism and Dr. King’s ethical message

For even further information on the historical intersections between Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mormonism, click here to listen to scholar Bill Russell’s 2011 lecture, “The Significance of Martin Luther King for the Saints Today.” The lecture is available for a $2.99 download, and the abstract for Russell’s lecture is copied here below:

We all know Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as the leading civil rights activist in America in the 1960s—a man who offered a prophetic voice to the major domestic issue of his time. But he should also be seen as one whose thought, as reflected in a significant body of public writings, reveals a man who can be rightly regarded as one of the leading Christian thinkers of twentieth-century America as well as a prophet whose message can and should be appropriated by Mormons of various perspectives. He gleaned from the best philosophical and religious thinkers of his day a new way to think about major issues and a strategy for dealing with not only racial oppression but other issues as well; thus, we should make much more use of his thinking in church life today.


Martin Luther King, Jr., pictured speaking in 1964.
Source: Library of Congress
(Attribution via Wikimedia Commons)