HEIDELBERG, Germany — He travels with books by Albert Camus and S∅ren Kierkegaard, but sometimes speaks in tongues.

He got his African name from Stokely Carmichael, who coined the term "Black Power" and was among his teachers.

He’s studied theology, existential philosophy, preaching and poverty, and wrote a book about hip-hop culture. And before he was 35, he went toe to toe with Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly.

"I won," said the Rev. Osagyfo Uhuru Sekou.

Meet this year’s Heidelberg keynote speaker on the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Sekou will be discussing King on Saturday at the annual King commemoration sponsored by the Rhein-Neckar Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the German-American Institute. The program, which starts at 6 p.m. at the Providence Church, Hauptstrasse 90a, is free and open to the public. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is Monday.

Sekou said his intent will be to "dispel some of the myths around King and lay forth how we measure up against who he was and who he called us to be."

"This idea that everybody loved him is just untrue, and that everybody over 40 marched with him; it’s just untrue," Sekou said. "It was just a few folks.… The prophetic are few."

This will be the 24th year the King commemoration has been held in Heidelberg, and it typically includes a sizeable U.S. Army presence. Last year, the garrison sergeant major performed an interpretive dance during the program. This year a choir from Patrick Henry Village will perform.

Sekou, 39, and the head pastor of a Congregationalist church in Queens, N.Y., is a pacifist. He argues that the cost of the Iraq war is reflected in the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans because it took money and attention away from the recovery effort.

He spent six months there, post-hurricane, organizing a group for workers’ rights.

"My standard of faithfulness has to do with the most vulnerable members of society," he said. "Who is catching hell, and how can I defend them?"

He calls himself a "radical democrat." A democrat, he said, is someone who works to make "civic institutions accountable to everyday people" and to fairly distribute resources.

Despite the federal holiday that honors King, the central role played by him in the nation’s history has been obscured in the four decades since his assassination, Sekou said.

"King is as important as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in the founding of the democracy," Sekou said. "He’s the greatest democrat America ever produced. He called America a liar and demanded she be truthful."

Yet King’s dangerous, difficult and mostly unpaid work — which ushered in a new, post-Jim-Crow era in the South; expanded freedoms for all Americans; criticized capitalism for abandoning the poor and demanded withdrawal from Vietnam — has been reduced in popular memory, Sekou said.

Many black Americans, let alone whites, held unfavorable views of King in the 1960s, Sekou said, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s father, who was a minister in Birmingham, Ala.

Now King is revered, but in a shallow way that ignores history, Sekou said.

"He’s been rendered in this way that he’s a kind of political Santa Claus who just wants you to pick up garbage in your neighborhood and paint over graffiti," Sekou said.

Sekou is also a third-generation Pentecostal minister. He was reared by his Arkansas grandparents, back when his name was Michael Braselman.

He met Carmichael, a black separatist and central figure in the civil rights movement, when Sekou studied at the Highlander Education and Research Center in Tennessee. Carmichael renamed him, Sekou said; his name translates to "Redeeming Freedom Fighter."

Sekou is also for abortion rights and is pro-gay marriage. "If religion doesn’t expand democracy, it shouldn’t have a place in the public discourse," he said.

He noted that one of King’s chief advisers was an openly gay man: Bayard Rustin, who studied with Gandhi and organized the 1963 March on Washington.

"The March on Washington ended 15 minutes ahead of schedule," Sekou said. "I figure only a gay black man could make that happen."

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now