Why is Martin Luther King, Jr. significant? Why should we celebrate his life and legacy? His holiday is celebrated each third Monday of January but what did he do? Aside from his I Have a Dream speech, what else is there to his life?
The life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. is expansive and inspiring. During his short 39 years alive, King offered inspiring leadership, a centralized figure for the media to focus on and a practical form of non-violent resistance to evil. His shadow covered many great leaders like Fred Shuttlesworth, E.D. Nixon, Ralph Abernathy, Bayard Rustin, Jesse Jackson, Wyatt Tee Walker (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), James Bevel (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), Diane Nash (SNCC), Roy Wilkins (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), Whitney Young (National Urban League), James Farmer (Congress of Racial Equality), A. Philip Randolph (Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters), John Lewis (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), and Stokley Carmichael (Black Panthers). The Civil Rights Movement would not have taken place without the collective work of these and countless nameless, faceless people but King is often given the most credit for the changes that took place. Below, I would like to offer some ideas about what made King a great Christian leader who influenced America and the World during his lifetime and even to the present day.
The greatest contribution that King offered America and the World is his inspiring leadership. Early on in his career, he was tapped on the shoulder to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association in December of 1955 after Rosa Parks’ arrest for refusing to give up her seat to a fellow white bus passenger. King was a new pastor in Montgomery, Alabama but his young age and lack of local experience (he hadn’t developed too many enemies yet) did not prevent the other ministers to place him in the front of the line.
The success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott from December 5, 1955 to December 20, 1956, propelled King into the national spotlight. Helping to organize and inspire the citizens of Montgomery to boycott the bussing system for 381 days was no small act of community organization, collaboration and commitment.
Following the Montgomery Bus Boycott victory, King and other national leaders wanted to create an organization to coordinate and support additional nonviolent direct action campaigns across the South. Men like Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham, Alabama had been fighting unjust racial policies and attitudes for years so he and others were eager to organize their efforts for greater strength and coordination. Out of this desire, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was born. In 1959, King left Montgomery and returned to his boyhood city, Atlanta, Georgia where he spent the rest of his life involved with SCLC. Times were changing and King’s leadership, while not uncontested, was instrumental in the shift.
King was a moving speaker and spiritual leader. We have all heard his, “I Have a Dream” speech delivered on August 28, 1963 but many of his other messages were just as inspiring. King had the freedom that many black leaders did not have: He was a pastor and could not be threatened economically by the white establishment for “stirring up” the people to change. Moreover, he was given additional authority and respect by the black community because of his pastoral role. And his words moved people. Some of the most moving lines ever spoken are captured here:
“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” delivered April 3, 1968, the night before his assassination. In it, he tells of his peace about the possibility that he may not live too much longer but my favorite parts are regarding the Good Samaritan and a close encounter with death and he receives some correspondence from a child. The rhythm and cadence of his voice is heart-full and awe-inspiring.
“Drum Major Instinct” delivered February 4, 1968 with the famous lines, And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, (Everybody) because everybody can serve. (Amen) You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. (All right) You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. (Amen) You only need a heart full of grace, (Yes, sir, Amen) a soul generated by love. (Yes) And you can be that servant.
“I Have a Dream”:
Further along in his leadership was authorship of several books. King authored the following books:
Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (1958), The Measure of a Man (1959), Strength to Love (1963), Why We Can’t Wait (1964), Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967), The Trumpet of Conscience (1968). These and other writings of King are all collected here in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1986) edited by James M. Washington.
My personal favorite writing of Dr. King was his Letter From a Birmingham Jail written as an open letter published on April 16, 1963 in response to a collection of eight white clergy who thought that the conflicts of segregation were better fought in the courts than on the streets. King’s famous line, Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly… is penned here. King’s leadership was constantly challenged because he was an “outsider” or a “trouble-maker”. This letter reads like a prison epistle of Paul: hearing a one-sided phone conversation with a local church who does not fully grasp what the Kingdom of God is intended to look like and operate. The full letter can be found in Why We Can’t Wait and also online (probably illegally).
Lastly, King’s leadership inspired courage for common people. The Civil Rights Movement was not made up of national figures who had audiences with Presidents and Kings. It was not made up of authors and famous people. It was not a collection of politicians and judges. The Civil Rights Movement was made of common men and women, blue-collar and white-collar, Protestants and Catholics, old and young, rich and poor, Northern and Southern, Eastern and Western, and the learned and the unlearned. Names like Ivanhoe Donaldson, Franklin McCain, Connie Curry, Everette Little, Mose Wright (my personal favorite), Sid Smyer, Diane Nash (another fave) and Johnnie Carr filled the pews, the streets, the jails, the lunch-counters, the public pools, the front of the buses, the libraries, the courtrooms, and even some graves; all to make America a greater nation. Yes, they had organized and attempted change before but Providence brought Dr. King and America’s citizenry together to make the changes permanent and wide-spread.
In Howell Raines’ must-read book My Soul is Rested, Yancey Martin shares some of his history and recounts a story between Dr. King and a woman in Montgomery during the Bus Boycott. While this woman probably did not need King’s inspiration and leadership, he used her story to inspire others to greatness.
That was at Day Street that night. Martin asked this old lady, he said, “Now listen… you have been with us all along, so now you go on and start back to ridin’ the bus, ‘cause you are too old to keep walking…”
She said, “Oh, no. Oh, no. I’m gonna walk just as long as everybody else walks. I’m gonna walk ‘till it’s over.”
So he said, “Aren’t your feet tired?”
She said, “Yes, my feets is tired, but my soul is rested.” Yes sir, and that was kind of like the story he (King) used to tell a lot in the Movement throughout the years. As he’d go somewhere and he’d think people would be getting a little tired of marchin’, he’d tell that story about the lady who said, “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.”
4 February 1968: Drum Major Instinct. (n.d.). Retrieved January 10, 2013, from The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute: http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_the_drum_major_instinct/
Martin Luther King, J. (1963). Why We Can’t Wait. NY: Harper & Row.
Raines, H. (1983). My Soul Is Rested. NY: Penguin.
Washington, J. M. (1986). Testament of Hope. NY: HarperCollins.
http://www.kingsacademy.com/mhodges/03_The-World-since-1900/09_The-Cold-War/09d_Shifts-in-American-Culture-r.htm http://bycommonconsent.com/2011/02/12/thar-he/ http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm