MLK 50 Years: Do We Know Him?

Beginning today, the last day of March, 2018, and over the coming month, I will post various reflections on the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. On April 4th, in just a few days, we will mark 50 years since his assassination in Memphis. Our country, and the world, is in deep need of Dr. King’s wisdom. I hope these reflections help us all to think and act more deliberately toward racial justice in our country. If any of these reflections prompt you to write something, please contact me at and perhaps your thoughts can take shape here too.

Do We Know Him?

Sometimes I wonder. I fear that most Americans merely know his “I Have a Dream” speech from the March on Washington in 1963. In that speech, Dr. King raised up his dream of a diverse nation, at peace with itself. He didn’t go into his critiques of militarism, racism, and materialism. He spoke more generally and more positively of what we could be. The Dream. He didn’t give voice to what he would later call The Beloved Community or The World House. And sadly, since many Americans only know that speech, we tend to have a soft, shallow, and comfortable view of him.

Unfortunately, Dr. King was not soft, shallow, or comforting. Because his language in the “I Have a Dream” speech is tolerable to white people, it is often all we hear of him. However, his life and work encompassed far more than the general dream of that speech. If one really wants to know his mind and heart, all one has to do is read his books. Many scholars consider Stride Toward Freedom, Why We Can’t Wait, and Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? to be his political autobiographies.

Stride Toward Freedom tells the story of the Montgomery Bus Protest. Dr. King was a young man, just out of graduate school at Boston University.

Why We Can’t Wait reflects on the tumultuous year of 1963. This book chronicles the March on Washington, the Birmingham campaigns, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. This book also contains his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” arguably the most important work of protest literature ever written.

Strength to Love was also published in 1963. This is a collection of his most requested sermons.

Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? This book, written in the last year of his life, reveals a very different Dr. King. He’d been living under daily death threats for more than a year. This book is post-Nobel Peace Prize so it reflects a more global thinking. In this book, Dr. King’s assessment of America and the world is more complex, thoughtful, and troubled. Dr. King has come out against the Vietnam War by the time this book was written and that decision carried powerful consequences for him and the civil rights movement.

Trumpet of Conscience, published in 1968, contains his Massey Lectures from 1967.

As a starting point, it’s crucial to recall that Dr. King was a man of the church. He was raised in Atlanta’s Black church community, largely as a way of shielding him from the damages segregation could do to his young son. So Dr. King is a man of the church. He knows scripture. He understands his Christian faith as inherently activist. He does not have a faith that merely deals with himself, his soul, his God. His faith looks outward.

It’s also important to understand that Dr. King did not plan the life he lived. He was an academic and wanted an academic’s life. He felt, after completing his doctorate at Boston University, that he needed a period of real world pastoral experience. So he took the pulpit at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, never intending to stay long. He wanted to get back to a university or seminary and teach. But Rosa Parks and the Black ministers in Montgomery had other plans. When she was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat, and the Montgomery ministers formed the Montgomery Improvement Association, to run the boycott, they turned to the very young Rev. King as their leader. They chose him largely because he had not yet had run-ins with the white power structure of Montgomery. They could not have known at the time that this minister in his late twenties would lead them well beyond Montgomery.

This young man was open to the future. He was open to the ways suffering would come to him. More than once, he took vicious and threatening phone calls at his Montgomery house. More than once he saw bombs placed on his porch while his wife and young child were at home. He let the world come to him. This led him into the darkest places of American racism. Yet he faced it with a calm, generous, kindness that would disarm many of his opponents. In fact, he refused to consider them opponents. He would often say he was not trying to “defeat” anyone. He did not want victory. He wanted reconciliation and reconciliation is a very different goal.



Photo: Public Domain



Published by josephrossnet

Poet & Teacher. Author of four books of poetry: Raising King (2020) Ache (2017) Gospel of Dust (2013) Meeting Bone Man (2012)

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