Stephon Ferguson brings Martin Luther King Jr.’s words to life

Ferguson’s cadence is so uncannily reminiscent of King’s that it would almost be an insult to call his reenactment an impersonation
Stephon Ferguson
Ferguson performing at Flux Night

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Atlanta resident Stephon Ferguson has spent a good chunk of his 47 years working as a comedian, specifically a “gospel comic” on the Christian comedy circuit. He’s done stand-up in churches across the country, often portraying a number of characters he created for his act, such as goofball preacher Reverend C.T. Butla and straight-talking church elder Mutha Shephad. On this warm fall afternoon in the basement of Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, Ferguson is playing yet another character—but this time it’s not for laughs.

Poised at a worn wooden podium at the 129-year-old house of worship turned museum in Sweet Auburn, he guides a standing-room-only crowd of tourists and visitors through a half-hour presentation about Ebenezer’s connection to Martin Luther King Jr., who followed in his father’s footsteps there as copastor.

Then, bowing his head in prayer, he takes a deep breath and begins to deliver familiar words in a voice that instantly transports the listener back in time. For the next five minutes, Ferguson recites, no, inhabits the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech in a tone, diction, and cadence uncannily reminiscent of King’s own. So reminiscent, in fact, that it would almost be an insult to call Ferguson’s reenactment an impersonation.

The performance brings applause from the audience, along with a few tears. When he’s finished, Ferguson positions himself near the door, greeting the visitors as they leave and giving them a closer look at his King-esque hairstyle, mustache, and suit. Some people shake his hand with wide-eyed grins. Others hug him with the affection they’d show a long-lost relative.

Ferguson says he doesn’t take such reactions for granted, even after more than a decade spent performing King’s speeches and sermons—and even after receiving testimonials, recounted on his website, from some of King’s own associates. From former mayor Andrew Young: “I closed my eyes, and it sounded as if Dr. King was speaking in the room.” And Congressman John Lewis: “You got it! You got him down pat.”

Ferguson sees himself on a divine mission to breathe life into King’s orations and help future generations stay connected to his teachings.

Stephon Ferguson
Photograph by Ben Rollins

“It’s a calling that God has placed on me, and it gives me a good feeling to know I’m answering that call,” says Ferguson from a hotel room in Los Angeles a few days after his Ebenezer appearance. “You may notice I pray at the beginning, and I pray at the end [of my presentation]. I’m just reflecting on my calling. When I’m actually doing it, it’s like King takes over. It’s almost like he taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘I got it.’”

Ferguson has had a number of careers in his life: comedian, motivational speaker, broadcast journalist, voice-over artist, and ordained minister, among others. But he says his role reenacting the speeches and sermons of King is his most important to date. The work has taken him from Ebenezer, where he regularly performs on most weekends as a volunteer, to venues around the nation and the world, from Memphis to London.

The idea to build a career around personifying King was sparked in 2002 in Ferguson’s hometown of Fayetteville, North Carolina. Working as a DJ, he was digging through old records with a friend when they came across recordings of King’s speeches. On a lark, Ferguson recited a speech that mimicked King’s delivery with an accuracy that surprised even himself.

“My friend said, ‘You should really consider memorizing, at the very least, the “I Have a Dream” speech. Imagine the amount of people you could really touch and bless by reinvigorating that speech and actually sounding like Dr. King,’” Ferguson says.

The following year, he says, he had memorized a number of King orations and, in doing so, gained greater insight into the history and philosophy behind the soaring rhetoric. Ferguson, the son of a preacher, was struck by the notion that he could use his abilities to help keep King’s legacy alive for the next generation.

In order to legally perform in public as MLK, he secured a license from the King Estate that hinges, in part, on his upholding the integrity of the civil rights leader while playing the part. Before long, he began appearing at venues around the country.

Ferguson says he’s been given signs along the way that he is on the right path. He recalls the feeling he had at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where he re-created King’s eulogy for the four black girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the church, with some of the victims’ family members in the audience. Or when he was visiting Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where King himself served as pastor, and was invited by church officials to speak from the pulpit on April 4, the anniversary of King’s death.

Ferguson’s relationship with Ebenezer, which is managed by the National Park Service, began a little more than three years ago, when he was invited to portray King for a presentation. When he spoke, members of the King family, including his daughter Bernice and son Martin Luther III, were able to see his reenactment for the first time. Six months later, he moved to Atlanta.

These days, on top of touring, he’s involved with a litany of King-centric projects. He’s writing a memoir about his experience portraying King. And he’s developing a one-man show designed to showcase many of MLK’s lesser-known works.

“Probably 95 percent of people I talk to don’t know more than ‘I Have a Dream’ . . . or maybe one or two more,” he says. “So I’m trying to bring out the words of Dr. King in many different ways.”

This month he’s scheduled to launch a college tour in which he will not only recite speeches but also answer questions and interact with students while remaining in character as King.

Ferguson’s own dream is to one day play King on the big screen. In fact, his October trip to Los Angeles was planned around visiting film studios in hopes of meeting the right people.

Although he realizes the quest could be considered naive, he says he was following divine inspiration.

“I go where the spirit leads me,” says Ferguson. “If God says move, I move. If He says come here for seven days, I book a flight, and I’m here.”

This article originally appeared in our January 2016 issue under the headline “The Man Who Would be King.”