Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Making of an American Moses (Part 2)

 

In PART ONE, the individuals and events that influenced King’s childhood and adolescence were addressed. 

+++++++++++++++++++++

 

Every prophet journeys through a season of preparation. Just as Moses spent years as a desert shepherd, Martin Luther King honed his message through years of education. As Martin’s influence grew, so did the opposition to his calls for social change.

As a son of the South, King knew the cost of his calling.

Nevertheless, a “dream” was bubbling within Martin’s soul. Like the ancient prophet Jeremiah, it was vision burning so hot within his heart he could not keep it to himself forever.

But his dream wasn’t yet ready for primetime. It needed time for the vision to gel, ruminate, mature and find its wings. For now, Martin Luther King was on a journey to learn, experience, understand, develop and prepare.

Between 1944 and 1955, King devoted himself to higher education. 

In the fall of ’44 King enrolled at Morehouse College…at the tender age of fifteen.

Morehouse was an all-black male school with a reputation for churning out preachers. Martin’s dad and granddad attended the school to achieve their qualification for ordination in their Baptist tradition. King declared his own calling into ministry in his junior year. He now believed the Church was the best way “to serve humanity.”

In 1948, he graduated with his BA in sociology at nineteen years of age.

King attended Crozer Theological Seminary (Upland, PA) for graduate work…and fell in love…with a white girl named Betty. It was a romance that even in the liberated north turned heads and wagged tongues. And now Martin talked of tying the knot.

That’s when Martin’s dad and his friends interrupted the relationship. They told the lovestruck King it was a terrible idea. Interracial marriage was poking the bear for social norms. It could hurt his young reputation. Or wound relationships with family, friends and congregants. It might even cost him the opportunity to pastor a church, especially in the South.

King soon learned how this relationship deeply hurt his mother. His dad and friends were right. Martin and Betty broke up. According to his closest friends, King never got over Betty. She was always his “love.” This experience taught Martin how certain racial lines were impassable. Even if something (like love) felt innocent and right, it required time to be socially acceptable.

In 1951, King graduated with his Bachelor of Divinity from Crozier. Four yeas later he finished his Ph.D. in systematic theology from Boston University.

In 1954, King moved to Montgomery, AL to pastor Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. He was only 25 years old. Fortunately, he didn’t move alone. A year earlier, King met and married Coretta Scott. Eventually, the couple had four children: Yolanda (1955-2007), Martin Luther King III (1957), Dexter Scott King (1961) and Bernice King (1963).

Montgomery, AL soon became the flashpoint for Martin Luther King’s emerging national vision.

Two separate bus incidents sparked the fire that spread King’s influence. Both involved black women who–like the younger King–refused to relinquish their seats to a white. The girls names were Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks.

Their resistance violated Jim Crow segregation laws. Parks’ arrest received more press and sparked the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott (led by King). The boycott lasted over a year. Racist agitators bombed King’s home. Then the Birmingham police arrested and jailed King on a petty speeding charge.

But that proved a blessing. The national media took up his story and suddenly King had a national platform.

In 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr. launched the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Inspired by Billy Graham’s crusades, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference included other Montgomery clergy and civil rights activists. The stated goal of the S.C.L.C. was to “harness the moral authority and organizing power of black churches to conduct nonviolent protests in the service of civil rights reform.”

From that day forward, King laid his life on the line for his people. Similar to Moses in the Bible, King desired to lead his people out of the past. His vision pointed to a new Promised Land where civil rights, desegregation and racial harmony ruled the day.

Knife attacks, police arrests, jail, and hard labor prison sentences accompanied King’s calling.

One spring day in 1963, Martin’s movement took a turn in Birmingham, AL. The police released their dogs and sprayed firehoses upon a large S.C.L.C. demonstration march.  The  demonstration included dozens of black children as part of a “crusade.” The optics looked bad.

However, as usual, the law arrested and jailed King before the trouble touched him. But, in the end, King’s greatest contribution wasn’t on the street but from his cell. He wrote the Letter from Birmingham Jail during his incarceration. It became an immediate critic’s choice. One writer called the book “one of the most important historical documents penned by a modern political prisoner.”

The Birmingham moment in April 1963 created the “March on Washington” four months later.

On August 28, over 250,000 people gathered in Washington, DC for a peaceful protest. There were several goals for the march.

First, to highlight continuing racial segregation in schools. Second, to promote meaningful civil rights legislation. And, third, to improve other protections for the discriminated black.

From the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington monument was a sea of humanity. Like ancient Israelites waiting for manna from heaven and a Red Sea miracle, the people waited for King to speak.

I have a dream,” Martin began, with a slight pause, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”

Across the lawn of the National Mall, the congregants leaned into his words. Then King reached back into his memory bank. He tapped into those moments when racial bigotry and hate nearly consumed his soul. Then he baptized them in hope and raptured a new godly vision for his people.

“I have a dream,” King voiced again in that familiar Baptist preacher tone, “that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

From the Lincoln Memorial, for 17 minutes, King’s words rose and rang as a clarion bell for change. A century earlier a white American president emancipated the slave. Now, a black American preacher reminded Americans of their true heart and core principles.

“I have a dream,” King thundered, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

A year later the 1964 Civil Rights Act was signed into law.

King’s Civil Rights Movement of passive nonviolent protest was underway and he won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. In his acceptance speech he stated:

“… profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time — the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression.”

This passive philosophy would be tested repeatedly over the next four years, from the Deep South of Selma, AL to the urban streets of Chicago, IL …but King never wavered.

 

TO BE CONTINUED

Leave a Comment