I had never heard such a piercing scream from my mother as this. Terrified, I ran towards the kitchen as fast as my 4 year old legs could carry me. My mother sobbed loudly as if seriously injured, with a crackling frying pan on one side and our black and white TV on the other. I suspected she had been popped by hot grease. Instead, she pointed to the TV and explained that a “great man” had been killed. At my age, his name didn’t register – it was either Martin Luther King or Robert Kennedy – but I’ll always remember her deep anguish at the loss and subsequent despair about the future. Only later would I grow to understand the significance of the Kennedys and King to a world then suffering from bitter division, deep moral conflicts, human indignity, and senseless violence; a significance felt especially by African Americans and Catholics. Our family, in fact, happened to be both.
Today in particular, our nation honors the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I suspect that, with so many years between our time and his, far too many view King with the same distant curiosity that I once held as a young child in our kitchen: Who is this man? What makes him so significant? . . . and, more importantly, what time will dinner be ready?
To understand and appreciate King, you’d have to start with the uniqueness of his faith in God. The starting place should not be Washington DC where he gave his memorable 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. Don’t begin with one of the many streets upon which he was beaten and spit upon for taking a stand against the injustice and brutality of legally enforced racial segregation and subjugation by marching for freedom. Though he was arrested dozens of times for non-violent civil disobedience, I wouldn’t start with a jail cell; not even the infamous Birmingham County jail from which he penned the stirring letter “Why We Can’t Wait” around the edges of a newspaper – the only paper available to him. If you want to know the secret to King’s faith, start with an episode that took place during his early leadership, ironically enough, in his kitchen.
When a young woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a White man in 1955, the young pastor of a Baptist church (King) agreed to help lead the Black community’s response. King was young, highly intelligent, and a gifted speaker. In addition, King wanted to try out a new tactic in the fight for Civil Right: non-violent direct action, in which he fused Christian ideals of loving one’s enemy with the non-violent direct action tactics of a Hindu in India named Mahatma Gandhi. The first implementation of this would be the Montgomery Bus Boycott – Blacks would walk rather than ride buses until legal segregation had ended.
As the leader, King became a target. Late one night, two months into a boycott that had only been expected to last a few days, he received a chilling phone call saying “N_____, we’re tired of your mess. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow up your house and blow your brains out.” Although he normally received 30-40 such calls a day and ignored them, for some reason, this one shook him. He got up, went into the kitchen, and made some coffee to calm down. He then thought about his sleeping wife and young daughter and broke down in prayer, telling God that he had given all he had but had nothing more to give and was afraid. Then he heard an inner voice from God saying: “Martin Luther, stand up for truth. Stand up for justice. Stand up for righteousness.’” And there in the kitchen, God promised to be at his side. It was at that moment that King understood that faith had to “become real” for him.
A few days later, King’s house was indeed bombed; but he remained steadfast in his faith that they could succeed. King was right – after 381 days, non-violent direct action had achieved its goal to desegregate the Montgomery Bus system, through a federal court order.
A new, moral leader had emerged – one not afraid to speak to the very conscience of a nation against legal segregation, human indignity, immorality, and injustice with the prophetic voice of God. King came into prominence using a then new tactic in the Civil Rights struggle – non-violent direct action — which at its core counted upon the inner goodness of all humanity and challenged us to live up to the ideals we professed. Most significantly, it taught that agapic love and the subsequent innocent suffering for Christ have the power to transform and redeem — rather than defeat – even a bitter enemy.
And King did more than talk the talk. He walked the walk. He lived non-violence. In essence, King did more than fight for civil rights, voting rights and temporal freedom – he fought for a different kind of freedom – freedom to love. King taught a diverse nation of different races, religions, nationalities, ethnicities and creeds how to love as Jesus loves: humbly, unconditionally, and with a forgiving heart. Ultimately, this is why the legacy of King resonates with us all. This is why he is significant for the modern challenges we face in the world today.
Over the past few weeks, from the Nativity of our Lord to the Wedding at Cana, we have been contemplating just who Jesus is and who we are because of who Jesus is. Like us, Jesus is human, but he is also one of the divine Persons of the Holy Trinity; and yet, the Good News is that he is inviting us to participate in the explosion of eternal love that is at the core of who God the Trinity is. In this, Jesus has come to teach us what it means to be human, and it is this: to love as God loves. In modern times, he had no better pupil than Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We would do well to follow his example of faith.