Aaron Dobynes was 5 when word from a Memphis motel made it to his grandfather’s farm in Alabama. A family friend stopped by to relay the news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and as the young Dobynes looked on, the two men began to cry.
“I don’t know exactly how I was processing it, but it never left me,” he said.
Now a King scholar with double doctoral degrees, Dobynes will deliver UMW’s Martin Luther King Jr. keynote address, presented by the James Farmer Multicultural Center, tomorrow at 6 p.m. live via Zoom. Registration is required. A fourth-generation preacher who presides over Fredericksburg’s Shiloh (Old Site) Baptist Church, he’ll weave his own personal civil rights story with words from the famous King speeches he’s studied for decades.
“King was shot and killed, but his spirit lay in all of us. We are the bearers of his dream,” Dobynes said. “We have to regularly and consistently, especially in this age in which we find ourselves, recognize what King said 40-some years ago. The work is never completed.”
Growing up in Perry County, Alabama – where MLK’s widow, the late Coretta Scott King, also was raised – Dobynes absorbed the ways of his father, a preacher who earned a Purple Heart in Korea risking his life “for liberties he could not enjoy here at home.” When Black parishioners signed on at his church, he made sure they got to the polls, as well, and when desegregation of schools finally slogged its way into Perry, he led a group that set out to protect Coretta Scott King’s cousin, a local principal, from possible attacks by protestors.
From his father and from his uncle, who was also involved in key civil rights struggles, Dobynes said that he learned: “We have a responsibility for making this world the best that we can while we’re here and for making it better for those behind us.”
He developed that mindset, too, from Dr. King’s mission, which he began to consume, reading and re-reading iconic speeches, like “I Have a Dream” and “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” etching the words, inflection and tone into his mind.
Licensed to preach by age 15, Dobynes began leading his own Baptist church services, which he’s done ever since, inspiring congregations in Alabama, Louisiana and Virginia. He earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University of Alabama and a master of divinity degree from Virginia Union University School of Theology. He holds two doctoral degrees, one in ministry from United Theological Seminary and one in philosophy, with a concentration in Martin Luther King Jr. studies, from the Union Institute and University.
Early on, Dobynes focused in on another injustice – church leadership roles off-limits to women – and went to work ordaining them as deacons and pastors, even when it made him unpopular with groups who opposed it.
“I use my male privilege in the Black church to advocate for women,” said Dobynes, who delved into teaching every step of the way – everything from theology to Black and American history – at Selma, Southern and Shreveport universities. A member of UMW’s President’s Community Advisory Committee on Diversity, he joined students this summer as they marched in support of racial equality and Black Lives Matter, following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
“Everybody has some kind of privilege; we should use that privilege as best as we can, as often as we can,” Dobynes said, channeling King. “When you go through a door, don’t close it behind you. Leave it open for someone else.”