Four days after police arrested Rosa Parks for refusing to surrender her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Ala., bus, the young Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. explained the Christian foundation of the civil rights movement he was about to lead.
"I want to say that we are not here advocating violence," King said in a Dec. 5, 1955, speech at the Holt Street Baptist Church.
"I want it to be known throughout Montgomery and throughout this nation that we are Christian people," King said. "We believe in the Christian religion. We believe in the teachings of Jesus. The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest."
King, a Baptist minister and American patriot whose organization would be called the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, wanted the nation to know that the civil rights movement was rooted in fidelity to Judeo-Christian morality and to America's founding documents.
"And we are determined here in Montgomery," King said that day in 1955, "to work and fight until justice 'runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.'"
In these last words, King was quoting from the Bible -- Amos 5:24.
A visitor to the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C., will find 16 statements from King carved in granite there. One is from his 1955 Montgomery speech. In its entirety, it reads: "We are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs 'down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.'"
This is as close as the memorial gets to acknowledging that King was a Christian clergyman who passionately argued that discrimination was wrong because it violated God's law.
The words "God," "Jesus" and "Lord" -- ever-present in King's speeches and sermons -- are carved nowhere in the stones of the memorial dedicated in his name.
King's name is repeatedly carved into the memorial. But none of these carvings refer to him as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In all cases, he is called simply "Martin Luther King Jr."
How important was King's Christian ministry to him? When he was thrown in the Birmingham jail for marching without a permit on Good Friday 1963, King wrote an open letter expressing disappointment with fellow clergymen who criticized the nonviolent movement to desegregate that city.
"I say it as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen," said King.
In the same letter, King explained again how the civil rights movement was rooted in traditional Christian morality.
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