In 1962 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was visiting Terrell County, Georgia speaking to a congregation whose church building had recently been burned to the ground by the Klan. The name of the church was Mt. Olive Baptist Church. In the service was a young SNCC worker and college student, Prathia Hall. She had distinguished herself as someone with great oratory talents and possessing a strong religious background, so she was on the program that night to pray. As she prayed Prathia drew on her talents as the daughter of a Baptist preacher and began to intone her own vision of the future by peppering her prayer with the phrase, “I Have A Dream.” King was impressed; and as ministers often do King would later go on to incorporate an inspiring phrase he heard from someone into his own speeches. By late1962 the phrase, “I have a dream” had become a fixture in sermons King frequently gave as he traveled the United States.
So who was Prathia Hall?
Prathia Hall grew up in Philadelphia. Her father, Reverend Berkeley Hall, was a Baptist minister and a passionate advocate for racial justice. She left her undergraduate studies at Temple University to join the throng of college students who were heading south to be freedom fighters and to take part in the movement taking place there. Prathia joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and eventually became one of the first women field leaders in southwest Georgia. Prathia would later go on to become a preacher, following her father’s footsteps as a Baptist minister. She helped break barriers for women’s leadership in the Baptist church by distinguishing herself as an outstanding preacher. In 1962 she was the first woman to be received into the membership of the Baptist Minister’s Conference of Philadelphia. After her father’s death Prathia accepted the call of Mount Sharon Baptist Church in Philadelphia to come and pastor the church her father once pastored.
Prathia later enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary where I met her. We were classmates, she focusing on ethics while I focused on biblical studies. I remember the long talks we had about God, ministry, life, love, and the struggle for justice. I don’t recall her making any special effort to impress me with her SNCC credentials. Neither do I recall her saying a word about having influenced ML King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. She was always in great demand as a speaker even while she was still a graduate student at Princeton, probably because she had been speaking and preaching for a long time before she arrived at Princeton. I got a chance to watch Prathia juggling studies, pastoring, her travels as a speaker, along with her most important job of being single mom to two rambunctious teenagers. I would often go down from Princeton to Philadelphia to preach for her at Mt. Sharon Baptist on those Sundays when she had to be out of town. Prathia Hall (Wynn) eventually graduated from Princeton with a Ph.D. in ethics, specializing in womanist ethics, theology, and African-American church history.
In 1962 Prathia Hall inspired the imagination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by lending him a phrase(”I Have A Dream”) that would become a staple of his preaching and the signature of his life work. It seems only fitting decades later that Rev. Dr. Prathia Hall would go on to become an associate professor at Boston University School of Theology, holding the Martin Luther King Jr. Chair in Social Ethics. Prathia Hall died on August 12, 2002, following a long illness.
I am remembering Prathia Hall this week.