The arrival of the annual King holiday prompts reflection on the state of the country relative to the lofty dream he articulated first in Detroit, and then most memorably on the Washington Mall in August 1963.
But it’s also an opportunity to consider the man and how he was able to persevere in the face of the consistently vicious opposition he encountered during the final third of his life.
One part of the key may lie in a speech he gave in Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago in 1967, about a year after his campaign to bring about the “unconditional surrender” of slum housing conditions in what was then the nation’s second-largest city.
The experience he recounted happened late one night in the kitchen of his Montgomery home.
King, who had not originally sought out a church that would become the center of international activism, had emerged as a leader in the boycott sparked by seamstress, NAACP member and former Highlander Center alumnus Rosa Parks. (An interesting side note is that 15-year-old Claudette Colvin had been arrested for the same violation the year before Parks, but had not been considered a sufficiently appropriate face of the moment by the local black power structure.)
The decision came with heavy costs.
King’s house was bombed one night while he and his family were in it.
He received daily death threats for the following 13 years until his assassination in Memphis by James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968.
It was at midnight, King told the Chicago audience, when he received the call. (You can hear King start to tell the story at 18:32 on the recording.)
The message was simple and laced with a racial epithet:
We’re tired of you and what you’re doing.
Get out of town in three days, or we’ll kill you and blow up your house.
Although he had encountered many similar such threats, this one jolted King.
He could not return to sleep.
He eventually went into his kitchen for a cup of coffee to calm his nerves.
He started thinking about the theology he had studied for years, about his beautiful little girl, about his dedicated and loving wife.
King then thought of reaching out to his father, a well-respected preacher, but he was 175 miles away in Atlanta.
He even considered contacting his mother.
Then he realized he needed to pray, to call on his profound belief and to ask for help from the god in which he believed so fervently.
With the crowd clapping and calling out its approval and support, King said that he bowed down over the cup of coffee and uttered the following prayer:
“Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. (Yes) I think I’m right; I think the cause that we represent is right. (Yes) But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now; I’m faltering; I’m losing my courage. (Yes) And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.”
King’s voice rose as he told the crowd that he heard a voice telling him, “Martin Luther, (Yes) stand up for righteousness, (Yes) stand up for justice, (Yes) stand up for truth. (Yes) And lo I will be with you, (Yes) even until the end of the world.”
It rose even further as he roared his belief:
“And I’ll tell you, I’ve seen the lightning flash. I’ve heard the thunder roll. I felt sin- breakers dashing, trying to conquer my soul. But I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No, never alone. No, never alone. He promised never to leave me, (Never) never to leave me alone.”
Based on the strength he drew from the voice he heard, King gathered himself to continue the fight for justice and equality.
He fought from victories in Montgomery and Selma to setbacks in Albany, Georgia and here in Chicago.
He expanded his geographic focus from the southern part of the United States to the north to the entire world (The bombs dropped in Vietnam fall in American cities, he said in one address.)
Animated by his faith and the comfort he received by not being left alone, motivated by what he called the fierce urgency of now, King gathered himself and fought until he drew his final breath in Memphis.
He did so in the face of disappointment, and, as he told the church crowd, in spite of battles with discouragement:
“And I don’t mind telling you this morning that sometimes I feel discouraged. (All right) I felt discouraged in Chicago. As I move through Mississippi and Georgia and Alabama, I feel discouraged. (Yes, sir) Living every day under the threat of death, I feel discouraged sometimes. Living every day under extensive criticisms, even from Negroes, I feel discouraged sometimes. [applause] Yes, sometimes I feel discouraged and feel my work’s in vain. But then the holy spirit (Yes) revives my soul again. “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.” God bless you.” [applause]
The message he delivered in our city, a place where he achieved decidedly mixed results, can help us arrive at a different understanding of the man than one often reads and hears about in history books.
That King is portrayed as a lofty dreamer, a towering giant who stands enshrined in a massive statue on the very mall where he delivered his most famous address.
But his Chicago sermon reveals an imperfect man who grappled with insecurity, yet who found through his faith, his circle of loved ones and his own inner resources, the strength and courage to continue to fight for a cause he believed in so deeply he gave his life to it.
We are grateful and better as a country for his sacrifice, and closer to him as a man for his having shared his inner struggle.