Martin Luther King, Jr.
Apostle of Freedom
(1929 – 1968)
Martin Luther King, Jr. never shied away from controversy. Whether it was an issue of civil rights, poverty or the war in Vietnam, he had a vision of a world of peace and equality, and he was never afraid to talk about it. He challenged segregationists and changed the laws in Alabama, paving the way for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In his passionate advocacy for the working poor, he challenged many of his own supporters when he insisted always on nonviolent protest: “It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.” He challenged many in the Johnson administration when he took a public stand against the Vietnam War. Despite many death threats, he remained hopeful and fearless. We are grateful for his confidence that dreams of justice can become realities here and now.
-- Margaret Wakeley
"The cross is something that you bear and ultimately that you die on."
In a church in Montgomery, Alabama, on December 2, 1955, a young Baptist minister named Martin Luther King, Jr., at the time only twenty-six and fresh from graduate school in Boston, stood up before a packed audience of protesters. The previous day Mrs. Rosa Parks, a black seamstress, had been arrested after refusing to yield her seat on a bus to a white man. The incident immediately sparked a bus boycott by the city’s black population. King, only newly arrived in Montgomery for his first pastoral assignment, had been drafted to lead the protest committee. As he faced the expectant crowd before him that evening he began, “As you know, my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression.” The church erupted with applause and cries of “Yes!” “If we are wrong – God Almighty is wrong! If we are wrong," he continued, “Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer and never came down to Earth! If we are wrong, justice is a lie!”
It was an extraordinary speech that galvanized the struggle in Montgomery as surely as it launched King’s career as a leader of the black freedom struggle in America. When at last the campaign in Montgomery was won, the tactic of nonviolent resistance tested there were applied and extended throughout the South. King proved to be a gifted political strategist, as well as a brilliant orator. But he was more. He was a prophet, in the truest biblical sense, who proclaimed to his generation the justice and mercy of God, remaining true to his mission even to the laying down of his life.
A critical moment of doubt came early in his journey. One night in 1957 a death threat was delivered over the phone. He had already faced plenty of violence and hatred. But somehow the strain of the moment and the implicit threat not only to himself but to his family brought him to the limit of his strength. He went into the kitchen and as he sat there with a cup of coffee he turned himself over to God. “Almost out of nowhere I heard a voice. ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’” Afterward, he said, “I was ready to face anything.”
His house was bombed. He was repeatedly jailed. On one occasion he was nearly fatally stabbed. But he was never again tempted by doubt or despair. All the while he continued to grow in his commitment to nonviolence, not simply as a political tactic, but as a thoroughgoing principle of life, a means appropriate to his constant goal – what he called the Beloved Community. In 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream Speech.” That speech summarized his most hopeful image of an America redeemed by the transforming power of love: “When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.’”
King’s popularity was never higher. Within a year he had won the Nobel Peace Prize. But he did not cling to the safety of honor. Instead he continued to grow, to delve deeper into the roots of American racism and violence, to plumb deeper into the challenge of his vocation as a minister of God. In 1967 he broke with many of his colleagues, and supporters by publicly speaking out against the Vietnam War. He became increasingly critical of the structures of power in the United States, and he began to forge the bonds of a radical alliance that would unite poor people of all colors in the struggle for social change. J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, who had for many years waged a covert effort to destroy King, publicly called him the most dangerous man in America.
But the roots of King’s challenge and hope lay not in any political philosophy. They were based on his faith in the promise of God – the faith, expressed in his maiden speech, that God is not a liar. As he said in 1965,
Truth crushed to earth will rise again. How long? Not long! Because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long!...Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet that scaffold sways the future and behind the dim unknown standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch over his own. How long? Not long! Because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
By that time King’s days were already numbered. In April 1968 he was in Memphis to lend support to the city’s striking sanitation workers. He seemed increasingly to anticipate his appointment with destiny. On the evening of April 3 he addressed a rally and ended with these words:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
He was assassinated the next day.
King did not represent himself as a saint. Posthumous revelations of some of his weaknesses underscored the fact that King, at the time of his death, was still evolving, still on the way to reconciling the logic of his faith with his personal conduct. But nothing detracts from his role as a “drum major of freedom.” He said of himself, “I want you to know…that I am a sinner like all God’s children. But I want to be a good man. And I want to hear a voice saying to me one day, ‘I take you in and I bless you, because you tried.’” King struggled to be more than his weakest qualities. He challenged the church and all Americans to do the same.
Sincere thanks to Robert Ellsberg
for permission to use this chapter from his book All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses From Our Time. "Since soon after it came out; I have used this book for daily spiritual reading and still find it inspiring." Br. David
To read a biography of Dr. King, several of his sermons and speeches, a chronology of the Black freedom struggle, and much more, please visit: The Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project