Martin Luther King, Jr., by general consensus one of the greatest civil and human rights activists in American history, would have been 82 years old today.
King has been an enduring presence since I was in second or third grade and first heard his legendary “I have a dream” speech. As a senior at Stanford, I did my honors thesis on Dr. King in which I argued that his childhood experience formed the basis for his later non-violent philosophy and attitudes toward women.
While doing the research for that project, I had access to thousands of primary source documents that my adviser Clay Carson and his staff at the King Papers Project, now the King Institute, subsequently published in a series of volumes that continues until today.
I started the project late in the year, as my previous focus on William Walker and a macrobiotic interpretation of history had fallen on decidedly deaf ears. At around this time in 1987, I approached Professor Carson and asked him if he would be willing to guide my project.
Not understanding that it was due in three months, he consented. When he later understood the deadline, he changed his mind. During the following three weeks I read 16 books about King and fashioned a proposal.
Eventually, he agreed again.
Reading the papers King wrote in high school, the advice he gave in his role as a columnist for Ebony magazine, and the speeches he delivered throughout the country and the world thrilled me and gave me a deeper appreciation of his struggles and unrelenting push for justice once he decided to enter the fray.
I also came to understand that King had originally sought out Montgomery, Ala. not because he was looking to advocate for social justice, but because it was a quiet community in which he could minister.
His being selected to lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott was the product of a compromise by the black community’s civic elite who tapped King because he was new to the area and thus had little baggage.
Once called, King answered, and more than rose to the occasion, eventually become the global leader whose words are read, whose speeches are listened to, and whose example is heeded by many.
He lived with the prospect and knowledge of his eventual assassination from the time he first rose to prominence in Montgomery.
In one of my favorite speeches of his ever, given while he was in Chicago in the 60s, he talked about one of those early threats during a dark moment in the boycott.
He recounted the following:
“The telephone started ringing and I picked it up. On the other end was an ugly voice. That voice said to me, in substance, “Nigger, we are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow up your house.””
King had endured similar threats before, but somehow this one got to him in a different way. He made himself a cup of coffee in an effort to calm himself. It didn’t work.
Here is where he went from there, with the audience’s responses included.
“I was weak. (Yes) Something said to me, you can’t call on Daddy now, he’s up in Atlanta a hundred and seventy-five miles away. (Yes) You can’t even call on Mama now. (My Lord) You’ve got to call on that something in that person that your Daddy used to tell you about. (Yes) That power that can make a way out of no way. (Yes) And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me and I had to know God for myself. (Yes, sir) And I bowed down over that cup of coffee—I never will forget it. (Yes, sir) And oh yes, I prayed a prayer and I prayed out loud that night. (Yes) I said, “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.” (Yes) I wanted tomorrow morning to be able to go before the executive board with a smile on my face. And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, (Yes) “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.” 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.”
Bolstered by the faith that came to him in this moment of crisis, King shouldered on with renewed resolve and set about doing the work that made him the iconic yet human figure whose birth we celebrate and remember now.
I come from a different faith tradition and hold different beliefs than Dr. King, and I am grateful to him for the difference he has made in my life and that of countless others.