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
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.