“Early Morning, April 4; Shot rings out in the Memphis sky; Free at last, they took your life, They could not take your pride.”
–U2 “Pride (In the Name of Love),” The Unforgettable Fire, (1984)
Each year, as the Martin Luther King holiday draws near on the third weekend of January, I read one book about MLK, the mid-20th century Civil Rights movement, or African American history. Billy Graham was right when he called racism “America’s original sin,” and I think it is impossible to grasp the force of that statement without exploring the impact of Slavery, Jim Crow, and racism in American life.
This year, I found a new biography that looks at MLKs life from a fresh perspective–that of Martin Luther King’s Christian faith and the philosophical and theological impulses that shaped his convictions and his work: Martin Luther King: A Religious Life by Paul Harvey. Harvey, a historian who teaches at the University of Colorado (Colorado Springs), has written extensively about African American history and I’ve been privileged to use his excellent book Through the Storm, Through the Night: A History of African American Christianity as a text for my graduate course on American Christian history.
Harvey protrays King “as a prophet in the full biblical sense” (3). He was hard to pidgeon-hole, yet he was clear that his mission involved securing the same rights, liberties, and economic opportunities for African Americans that most whites enjoyed. Politically, he was a social democrat (in the European sense) and not a Communist as many of his racist detractors claimed. Throughout his brief adult life, King tried to teach and practice non-violent protest as the best way to call attention to injustice. Before his assassination, he was imprisoned and illegially surveiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) at a time when that agency routinely broke the law in its in-house opposition to the Civil Rights movement.
Permit me to take a different approach in my words about Harvey’s excellent work. Obviously, “MLK: A Religious Life” deals with how King’s theological and cultural convictions informed his life and work. Yet, I’ve discovered an interesting sub-narrative in its pages; that of MLK as pastor first at Dexter Ave. Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL and later as a kind of “pastor-at-large” to over 20 million African Americans living in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. For those of us who are pastors and church leaders, there are valuable ways that King’s ministry can inform ours. Let me suggest several:
1. King understood his calling. At Dexter Ave. MLK enjoyed a successful first year in a relatively obscure location; a far cry from Atlanta; the center of the American South and of African American Christianity in that region. When a series of events thrust him into leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott, the result of Rosa Parks’s unwillingness to give up her bus seat to a white rider, the story hit the newspapaers and MLK started receiving death threats.
A couple of days before a stick of dynamite detonated in front of his home, King experienced a kind of conversion: “Religion had become real to me and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed down over that cup of coffee, I will never forget it. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone” (62-63). MLK “experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced him belfore….My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”
God’s call to leadership and ministry is a serious matter and to withstand the pressures of ministry, leaders have to be certain of their calling.
2. King understood his mission, even when God changed the mission. At first MLK was called to serve a specific congregation and he hoped that through his congregational ministry he could fuel a local movement for African American freedom and liberty in the midst of the Jim Crow south. When those efforts met success, God gave him a different, larger mission; one that would tax all of his strength. In that larger mission he would wrestle with the demands of celebrity while trying to accomplish what seemed an impossible task–the complete emancipation of African Americans from political and economic Jim Crow. (Personally, I’m relieved that God never called me to this large of a mission.)
MLK knew that the mission was impossible; there was simply too much opposition from the vast majority of American people at the time and from the minions of local, state, and federal government. White supremacy had been firmly entrenched since the 1870s and to confront that directly could easily lead to violent reprisals as had been seen in Wilmington, NC in 1898, Tulsa, OK in 1921, and in other locations throughout the country. But MLK and his colleagues in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) discovered ways to keep their opponents off-guard through non-violent protest. Non-violence became the heart of the movement as countless men, women, and children were taught how to practice it, and in Montgomery, Birhimgham, Selma, and later throughout the American South, their message of freedom and liberty took hold. Through all of this MLK spent lots of time on the road raising money for the next non-violent action and being the up-front leader of the movement.
Obviously, most of us are not called to the same kind of broad-based ministry and leadership. Most of us are called to serve individual congregations, many of those in rather out-of-the-way places in cities, small towns, and rural areas. Hence, we need clarity about the mission to which God has called us and to the kinds of strategies and tools that God asks us to use. We may not use nonviolent protest, but perhaps God calls to a ministry of peace in communities where conflict threatens the health of a congregaton or ministry.
3. While King exercised the kind of top-down leadership found in many American congregations in the 1950s, he still gathered a group of leaders around him and he listened, even to those who disagreed with his approach. In Montgomery, some felt that others were doing all of the work of the bus-boycott and MLK simply came in and took the credit. In the mid-1960s, when student radcalism emerged in both the anti-Vietnam War and Civil Rights movements, King faced harsh criticism from those who thought non-violence was passe or thought he should join the anti-war movement (something he did later in 1967). Instead of rejecting their criticism, he listened and engaged his critics. He didn’t necessarily think they were right, but he did think he could learn from them.
Yet, MLK did not deviate from his non-violent path. Instead he doubled down with non-violent protests in Chicago and Memphis and laid the groundwork for a poor-people’s campaign in the nation’s capital. His non-violence was grounded in his understanding of human beings and human nature, which solidified during his PhD studies at Boston University in the early 1950s. King was tutored in the Boston personalist school of Edgar Brightman and Harold DeWolf, a school of thought that placed great emphasis on the value and dignity of human beings as created in the image of God. MLK aslo embraced the idea of human depravity articulated by another of his teachers, Reinhold Niebuhr, the most prominent public theologian of the mid-20th century (though King did not share the almost total pessimism about humanity that Niebuhr did).
Those convictions meant that for MLK, ethical ministry was about the value and dignity of the human person and that how we approach ministry must be ethical in practice and in result. I think we can learn alot from King here. Megachurches across the country adopt models of ministry that to put it bluntly are soul-killing; to leaders and to the individual Christians who are part of them.
So far, you might think that I’m offering a portrait of MLK that makes him out to be near perfect. Nothing can be further from the case. The final point that I suggest is something where MLK deeply struggled.
4, King struggled with his own self-care and that led to near implosion of his work and to times of personal moral failure. From the early 1960s on, MLK took little if any time for vacation, rest, and spiritual reflection. He was constantly tired. He needed sleep. He needed time with his wife and children. He did not allow himself time for reading. Why? The cause was too big and too important. There was always a new campaign to organize, a group to meet with, a potential donor whose support was needed to keep things going and pay the team, government officials to meet about policy. It was incessant and unending.
When MLK came to Memphis, on the night before his death, he appeared before nearly a thousand striking garbagemen. (The term “sanitation engineer” had yet to make an appearence.) If you watch the tape closely, you see the fatigue and exhaustion in his eyes. In other words, MLK was running on empty and had been for many months. Perhaps the only thing that gave him energy was the opportunity to speak.
Especially for those who are younger and new to ministry, it is easy to lose yourself in the ministry vocation. After all, the work seems so important; the needs so many; and the expectations so high. How can we not spend almost every waking hour giving ourselves to them? All of a sudden, we collapse. We find ourselves distant from God, from our families, even from our own humanity. MLK is not the only one who burned out; there are hundreds and thousands of folks called by God who did not practice proper self-care and spiritual care. Let me suggest that those are the two most important aspects of life and ministry. The Triume God is not an add-on to our work. He is the essence of it, and if we neglect him we can find ourselves in a very bad place.
For MLK, life came to an end that April day due to an assassian’s bullet. It probably would have even if MLK had tended to his own personal needs and his need to reflect on his realtionship with his Creator. One thing I admired about MLK was his ability to remain resolute in practicing love for all, friend and enemy alike. Harvey suggests that King struggled with anger and at times rage toward his opponents. I think all of us struggle with feelings about our critics. Yet, MLK was able to put those things aside and practice love for others, even the Bull Conner’s and Lester Maddox’s of the world. He knew that their supremacist hatreds harmed themselves far more than they realized. And, he is one of the last great public leaders in America whose work was animated by the Christian faith.
Paul Harvey’s Martin Luther King: A Religious Biography is published by Rowman and Littlefield Press (2021) and in my view represents one of the finest biographies of MLK or of any leader from the mid-20th Century Civil Rights Movement. The book contains an extensive bibliographic essay that covers works related to MLK and the Civil Rights campaigns in which he engaged. Another outstanding resource is the Martin Luther King Encyclopedia hosted online at https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia. This comprehensive online reference work is the go-to first source for reseach related to MLK, the Civil Rights movement, and Christian influence in the movement.