Both conservative and liberals quote Dr. King on this national holiday. Similar to the recent religious question – “What would Jesus do?” Many would-be social reformers attend to answer the question – “What would Martin do?”
Everything from legalizing gay marriage to withdrawal from Iraq have been couched in the terms: “Martin would have been for this!” The truth is that we can only take his speeches and writings and infer how he would have navigated the murky waters of the third millennium.
Therefore, before we start making pontifical statements about the nature of King’s direction, let’s review the history of which we are sure.
The first mass meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association on December 5, 1955, attracted several thousand attendees. The newly elected president, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was bold enough to describe the dilemma of black bus passengers and Rosa Park’s heroic act of civil disobedience committed just four days before.
Aware that discussing these issues candidly could ignite bitter, violent outbursts, King appealed to the faith of the African-American community. He encouraged his listeners to believe in the power of biblical justice. King’s sermon went one step further than most of that day by encouraging them to act on their belief in divine justice and use the American tradition of legal protest.
During the next 30 days, King received 30 to 40 threatening letters or phone calls each day. King wrote in “Stride Towards Freedom” that one night he received an ominous phone call just as he was about to doze off to sleep. The caller promised that before seven days passed, King would be sorry that he ever came to Montgomery, Alabama.
By his own admission, King was afraid and offered a desperate prayer from his kitchen table. He felt as though he could hear an inner voice saying, stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.
Although King’s uncertainty disappeared, three days later his house was fire bombed. Steadied by his “kitchen prayer,” he boldly preached to the crowd that gathered outside of his badly damaged house. He sent them away with his own firebombs of love and faith instead a call to arms, riot or violent retaliation.
We celebrate Dr. King’s birthday not just because his courage and resolve advanced civil justice for blacks. His life was also a gift to all Americans. Today, his dream is a living legacy, which is still changing the nation.
Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.