Monday, January 31, 2005

What Made Martin Luther King, Jr.?

Every January we celebrate the life of the noblest American of the 20th century, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His birthday is now a well-established national holiday. Even those who opposed it seem to have drifted into the cold corners of our dark and dismal past. Yet, there's a risk this day may suffer the ultimate insult of becoming just another excuse to shop and occupy our couches. Therefore, it's important to refresh our memories as to what fashioned Dr. King into God's most humble servant.

Dr. King was born Michael Luther King, Jr., on January 15, 1929. He later changed his name to Martin. This was the same year as the great stock market crash which ended a decade of greed, followed by years of grinding poverty. His father and grandfather were strong Baptist pastors. He attended segregated public schools and graduated from high school at the age of fifteen. He received his bachelor's degree from Morehouse college in Atlanta. After three years of study at Crozer Theological seminary, he was awarded a B.D. degree. In his last year, he was elected president of the mostly white senior class. With a fellowship from Crozer, he attended graduate studies at Boston university. There he achieved his doctorate of philosophy in Systematic Theology in 1955.

Dr. King's leadership skills were tested immediately. Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to surrender her bus seat to a white passenger on December 1, 1955. Four days later, he was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association. He helped coordinate the 382-day Montgomery bus boycott. It's rarely noted Ms. Parks was sitting in the section reserved for blacks (Negroes) at the time. Jim Crow laws required blacks to vacate the next seat in the black section if seats in the white section were full. It was a case of heaping insult upon injury. She simply protested the additional oppression. This seminal event sealed Dr. King's destiny. His career would last only 13 years.

Martin Luther King was at the center of the civil rights struggle which led to the 1963 March On Washington. He rose to the occasion and offered his vision of a better future in his "I Have A Dream" speech. Less than three weeks later, racists responded by bombing a Birmingham church, killing four black girls. On December 10, 1964, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded Dr. King the Nobel Peace Prize. He was murdered in Memphis as he stood on a Lorraine motel balcony. The date was April 4, 1968. Ever since, America has suffered from malignant doubt, despair and damnation.

Dr. King should be remembered because he was more than a leader. He was a champion. All leaders can define the problem (square "A"). All leaders can provide the solution (square "B"). Only champions can inspire people to risk moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar, even when it's obvious the change is in their own best interests. Dr. King's words resonate with the power of faith and hope. You can still be moved merely by the sound of his voice. Most of all, this prophet should be remembered for spreading the holy gospel of love. Despite the savage abuse and threats he bore for the sake of justice, he always taught us to love one another. To his dying day, he stood as a pillar of fire against the darkness. That light was snuffed out 37 years ago. America continues to suffer from the loss of her soul.

If Dr. King were alive today, he would collapse in tears from the grotesque shape of our nation's deformity. He'd be amazed a decrepit creature like George W. Bush could find his way into the highest office of our land. Despite the pain he would feel from witnessing our evil actions, he would refuse the sensuous allure of despair. He would summon us to redouble our efforts for peace and justice. He would stand up for the sake of righteousness and say: "Without love, there is no peace. Without love, there is no justice. Without love, there is no America." What made Martin Luther King, Jr.? It was love, sweet love.

Franklin L. Johnson


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