Martin Luther King Jr.

President Crutcher reflects on experiences with Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King

January 19, 2021


When President Ronald A. Crutcher was a teenager growing up in Cincinnati, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made several appearances at the church that Crutcher’s family attended. He writes about hearing Dr. King speak and meeting Coretta Scott King at Zion Baptist in his forthcoming memoir. Crutcher says he still draws inspiration from those experiences.

“I have kept Dr. King’s teachings close to my heart my entire life,” Crutcher said. “Anytime our nation faces a civil rights crisis or violence, I always turn to Volume V: ‘Threshold of a New Decade’ of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. series, given to me by one of Dr. King’s lieutenants, Dr. Bernard Lafayette. Those texts are a constant source of inspiration and guidance for me, and I have often quoted from them when I write letters to our community about our ongoing efforts to build a more inclusive Richmond.”

During a particularly polarized era, Crutcher says the words of Dr. King can help navigate divisiveness.

“I often think about Dr. King’s concept of the beloved community,” Crutcher said. “In order for the beloved community to come to fruition, it requires people from all creeds and colors to talk to each other, interact with each other, and respect each other based on their common humanity. Dr. King would say: ‘Love your neighbor.’ I would say let’s start with respect, at a minimum. If we can respect diverse backgrounds and diverse perspectives, we will be well on our way toward having more meaningful conversations across barriers and finding common ground."

This excerpt is adapted from “I Had No Idea You Were Black: Navigating Race on the Road to Leadership,” which will be published Feb. 9, by Clyde Hill Publishing.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached at Zion — the first Black Baptist church in Cincinnati — several times over the years, and he made a lasting impression. It felt like he was speaking directly to me, though I had only the barest inkling of all he had seen. “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy,” Dr. King preached on one Sunday morning. He said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is ‘What are you doing for others?’” and I thought about the way my father was always helping the Jewish widows in our neighborhood. His Black friends criticized him for this. In their eyes, our Jewish neighbors didn’t give a damn about us, so why should we do anything to help them? But my father waved off their questions. He had his beliefs and would not be swayed.

Dr. King usually came alone, but on one occasion his wife, the vocalist Coretta Scott King, accompanied him. As I recall, Dr. King preached for morning service, and Mrs. King presented a recital in the afternoon. More than sixty years later, I can still remember her voice. The emotion in it raised goosebumps up and down my arms. Afterward, Mrs. Booth, our preacher’s wife, sought me out to speak with Mrs. King. She took me by the arm and led me to the front of the church, where a crowd of people had gathered. I remember the way they parted to allow Mrs. Booth through. I remember how she introduced me to Mrs. King, and how I nervously told her that I had just begun to play the cello. Mrs. King looked down at me. She had piercing eyes but a warm smile. “Keep it up. Practice every day,” she said. A Black violinist had just been appointed to the New York Philharmonic, Mrs. King added. Maybe I could be next. (She was referring to Sanford Allen, who in 1961 became the first Black musician in that orchestra). There was nothing obviously life-changing about our brief conversation, but after my exchange with Coretta Scott King I began to seriously contemplate the possibility of becoming a professional musician. The impact of models and mentors in our early years cannot be overstated.

More than thirty years later, I met Mrs. King again. I had become a member of the civic engagement group Leadership Cleveland, performed concerts around the world, and possessed vastly more confidence as a musician. Yet I was still daunted by the prospect of speaking to this Civil Rights icon. Our group of sixty-four leaders from Cleveland was mostly white, and the director wanted us to see a Black city in action, so we flew to Atlanta to tour the Carter Center, then the King Center. Our director asked me to present a gift to Mrs. King as a gesture of appreciation. Was I being used as a token? I wondered about this. But I was even more concerned about blurting out the story of our first meeting so many decades earlier, fearing Mrs. King might be upset by this indication of her age. All of my worries were misplaced. I did indeed bring up the recital at our church. I told Mrs. King that it had shaped my formative years as a cellist and instilled a sense of mission that reverberated to that very day. I could not help noticing that my words brought tears to her eyes.


Photo: Courtesy of the Dr. and Mrs. Wyatt Tee Walker Collection in Boatwright Memorial Library