I grew up in Alabama in the age of the civil rights movement. I was born in 1955, the year that the Montgomery bus boycott catapulted Dr. King to national prominence. I was eight years old in 1963, the year of Dr. King's Birmingham campaign and the horrific bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which resulted in the deaths of four little girls who were waiting for Sunday school to begin.
I would like to be able to tell you that I have vivid memories of these events, but I don't. I remember some fear and anxiety in my family over the demonstrations that were going on in Birmingham. I am embarrassed to admit that I remember seeing separate drinking fountains and rest rooms and being told by my grandmother not to drink from the so-called "colored" drinking fountain. I remember that I was not allowed to take swimming lessons at the newly-integrated Birmingham YMCA because of fear of … well, I'm not really sure what the fear was about. And I remember being nervous when my elementary school was integrated, although I am certain I was not nearly as afraid as the black children who suddenly found themselves in a room full of white children.
Even though I don't personally remember much about the Birmingham campaign, the Selma march, and so on, I had the good fortune many years later to know some persons who did know a lot about these events from their personal experience. At two different universities in Birmingham I taught a course on religion and American history. Each of the three years that I taught the course, I invited a speaker to the class who had been personally involved in the movement. The first speaker was the Rev. John Porter, pastor of the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, who had been Dr. King's associate at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. The second speaker was Rabbi Milton Grafman, the rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanu-El, and the third was David Vann, who had been city attorney for the city of Birmingham during the Birmingham campaign.
The most illuminating speaker by far was Rabbi Grafman. A good and gracious man, Rabbi Grafman led Birmingham's Temple Emanu-El wisely and well for many years. However, he will forever be remembered as one of the seven white clergymen who wrote to Dr. King urging him to delay his protests in Birmingham. Dr. King replied to them in his best-known essay, "A Letter from a Birmingham Jail". When Rabbi Grafman and his colleagues urged King to wait, he replied, "To the Negro, 'wait' has meant 'never'. We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our constitutional and God-given rights". Rabbi Grafman came to my class and gave my students and me a very persuasive explanation for why he urged Dr. King to wait. After he had left, I asked my students to tell me who they thought had been right: Rabbi Grafman or Dr. King. Every one of the students in my class was white, middle-class, and southern, and unanimously they said that Rabbi Grafman had been wrong and Dr. King had been right.
Undoubtedly, Dr. King's greatest accomplishment was his role as a leader in the civil rights' movement and a catalyst who must be given a large share of responsibility for the civil rights' legislation of the 1960s. However, I want to mention two other accomplishments for which he should be remembered.
Dr. King came to national prominence in the late 1950s. We remember the 50s as the age of Leave it to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, and "I like Ike". Historian of religion Mark Noll argues that complacency characterized American religion the 50s: "Conservative evangelicals... translated the gospel into forms of entertainment that looked as much like versions of youthful diversion as alternatives to it. Mainline Protestants… were also busy creating a religion of the lowest common denominator with less and less that was distinctly Christian". (Noll, p. 441) And then suddenly, in this decade of complacency, Martin Luther King appeared.
One of King’s greatest accomplishments was to be a "public Christian". What I mean is that Dr. King brought the teachings of the Christian faith to bear on public issues, especially the most important issue of the 50s and 60s, full and equal civil rights for African Americans. In doing so, Dr. King gave new credibility to the Christian faith. Many American intellectuals thought of the Christian faith as intellectually bankrupt and as having little or nothing to say about the great issues of the day. Dr. King never spoke simply as a politician; he spoke as a prophet. That is to say, he spoke as one who could see God's hand at work in human history and who gave voice to God's demands upon human life, both individual and corporate. In his very first public statement as leader of the Montgomery bus boycott, he said, "We must keep God in the forefront. Let us be Christian in all of our action." The protestors must not hate their white opponents, but be guided by Christian love while seeking justice… "Love is one of the pinnacle parts of the Christian faith. There is another side called justice. And justice is really love in calculation". (Garrow, p. 24)
At the same time that Dr. King gave new credibility to the Christian faith to those who regarded it with suspicion and skepticism, he also provided a model for Christians to speak out on the great issues of the day. His example inspired and encouraged any number of other Christians to apply the Christian faith to the great issues of the day, especially the anti-war movement. In other words, Dr. King stood on that blurry line dividing the sacred and the secular, the church and the world. He reminded the world that God is active in its history, whether the world recognizes God's presence or not, and he reminded the church that God created and loves the world and calls us to engagement in the world on behalf of the poor and the powerless.
Enough of history… the purpose of celebrating Dr. King's life should not be just about praising a great man. Charles Willie, one of Dr. King's classmates at Morehouse College, said, "By idolizing those whom we honor, we do a disservice both to them and to ourselves. By exalting the accomplishments of Martin Luther King, Jr., into a legendary tale that is annually told, we fail to recognize his humanity - his personal and public struggles-that are similar to yours and mine. By idolizing those whom we honor, we fail to realize that we could go and do likewise". (Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 625)
I am certain that Dr. King himself would urge us not to dwell on his accomplishments. Ever a Baptist preacher, King would invite us to turn our attention from the messenger to the message and to invite the God whom Dr. King served to work as redemptively and powerfully in our own lives as God did in Dr. King's life.
What I take away from Dr. King is this: God has a mission for each of us. It will often be a mission that is difficult to bear, but God will give us strength. Dr. King put it better than I could. He said, "I pray that recognizing the necessity of suffering we will make of it a virtue…. To suffer in a righteous cause is to grow to our humanity's full stature. If only to save ourselves, we need the vision to see the ordeals of this generation as the opportunity to transform ourselves and American society…. We have … a responsibility to set out to discover what we are called to do. And after we discover that, we should set out to do it with all of the strength and all of the power that we can muster…. One knows deep down with there is something in the very structure of the cosmos that will ultimately bring about fulfillment and the triumph of that which is right. And this is the only thing that can keep one going in difficult periods."
Several years ago I read A.N. Wilson's biography of the English writer C.S. Lewis. It was a very controversial biography because it revealed many of Lewis' weaknesses and failings. However, I came away from it with greater respect for Lewis, because I discovered that he struggled with many of the same temptations that plague me. I feel much the same way about Dr. King. Did Dr. King have feet of clay? Of course, he did. Do all of us have feet of clay? Of course we do. But the message of Dr. King's life, as St. Paul reminds us, is that "God's strength is made perfect in weakness." Dr. King accepted the burden, the mission, that God gave him, even though the cost was great, even though it led to death. It was God's power in Dr. King's life that made him great, in spite of his weaknesses. And so it is in our lives. Our weaknesses are the very stuff which God uses to build a new world.