Reflecting on the Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I was ten years old when Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis. I remember that we were watching TV when reports came in about his death. I did not really know who he was or why his death was significant. I did know that it was a time of racial strife. The news was filled with reports of riots and unrest and I understood that there was trouble in our nation, but I did not have the grasp on national affairs to understand it.

I can remember when I was in 8th or 9th grade, I did a report on the “I Have a Dream” speech of August 28, 1963. I was amazed and inspired by those words. But on the other hand, I have heard many through the years who derided King’s theology, his efforts and his personal behavior.

On this day, I would like to take a few moments and reflect on the life and work of Dr. King. It makes me nervous, as a pasty-white Iowa pastor, to discuss the most iconic figure in the American civil rights movement. But I can see the powerful effect this man has had on the life of these United States and appreciate the work that he did. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. changed America. I have no desire to wade into the controversial aspects of his life or debate politics. I would like to make a few brief observations about his leadership, his impact and the example he left. There is much about his life, his work and his words that can serve as a guidepost for us.

1) The Undeniable Power of Words

What was the heart and soul of MLK, Jr’s work? It was his words. He did not run for office. He did not take up arms to lead his revolution. He inspired change with inspiring, motivating, powerful words. “I have a dream…” Those words set a goal for America’s racial future and advanced the cause of civil rights. His words were active!

We published Mike Leake’s article last week about blogging and doing – a well-known (and controversial) pastor drew a distinction between them. How many variations have you heard of the idea that there are doers who get things done and talkers who just use empty words. Often blogging is discounted because it is only words. Have you ever heard preaching dismissed in a similar fashion?

Dr. King shows (to my joy) that words are powerful. His carefully chosen and massively inspiring words changed the direction of a country. Paul told us that “faith comes by hearing.” Hearing is the result of someone talking, right? When we speak words of truth, we are doing something powerful and life-changing. Far from being empty and meaningless, words can change lives when the Holy Spirit uses them.

Preaching. Writing. Proclaiming truth. When we speak the Word, we are doing something significant.

2) The Power of Perseverance

When Dr. King gave his powerful speech in 1963, the country gave him unanimous applause and immediately changed all of its laws and practices that were discriminatory, right? Uh…well…no. Several state governments brought all their power to bear against him. There are reports that the FBI not only used surveillance but perhaps harassment to stop him. He was vilified, arrested and mistreated with impunity.

And he continued.

Christians are so easily discouraged. In the Bible, every work of God was vigorously opposed and victory only came as a result of perseverance. God’s people continued to do what God commanded even when everything fell apart and people came against them. But we expect that if God calls us, the enemy will lay down, everyone will rally around us, all the doors will open and everything will come together perfectly. I’ve known of preachers who left churches because a few people resisted their “vision” for the church. Spiritual quitters never see great victories.

Perhaps one of the reasons we get so little accomplished is that we are prone to get discouraged and quit when things go wrong. Perseverance is an essential quality of ministry success.

MLK, Jr. modeled that principle.

3) Serving Something Bigger

I am anything but an expert on the life or work of Dr. King, but he seems to have been a man who was committed to a cause much bigger than himself. He put his life at risk to help men and women who were being mistreated because of the color of their skin. Many politicians and movement leaders seem to be motivated more by their own glory and status, but they seldom bring lasting change.

Dr. King had a dream, a vision, one that was bigger than himself. He devoted his life to a cause for the benefit of others.

We, as believers, have the greatest cause of all time. We serve the Savior who is the only hope of all the world. It is amazing how often we turn that cause into a selfish pursuit. Church-building can become self-aggrandizement all too easily. We must fight that natural but sinful human tendency.

Leaders who really make a difference, in politics, society, or at church learn a lesson that Dr. King seemed to understand: It’s not about me!

4) Heroes Have Fee of Clay

Those who do not share Dr. King’s vision were quick to publicize and criticize his personal moral failings. It is clear that Dr. King was not a perfect man. His vision was extraordinary, his words were inspiring, but he had personal flaws that might have undermined his work if time had permitted.

I would make two observations from his foibles. When we do our work, we must remember that private character is as important as public ministry. So often, we can polish the outside and forget to keep the inside in order. It is a common failing of those in public ministry – one that perhaps becomes more of a struggle as we “succeed” in ministry. When we fail, we give the enemy ammunition to use against us.

Second, it is important that we not allow our churches to become too heavily identified with our name and our work. It’s about the Kingdom, not the herald. Just before he died, King gave a speech in which he admitted, “I might not get there with you.” But the cause was bigger than the spokesman. He knew that. We need to remind our people that it’s about Jesus and the gospel, not about the pastor. Too often, those things can get confused.

5) The Means and the Ends

Dr. King is known for his goal – the end of racism and discrimination in America. But he is also known for his means. Having been influenced by Gandhi, he chose non-violent resistance. In that approach, he drew opposition not only from the racist institutions of America, but from some others in the Black community to advocated a more forceful approach.

But King was concerned not only that the ends were just, but that the means to that end were also just.

This is a good reminder for us as we serve eternity’s most noble end, the propagation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. What we do is important, but how we do it matters just as much. God must be honored by the ends of our lives, but also by the means we use to seek those ends.

Dr. King was not perfect, but his life made a difference. I want my life to make a difference as well, and I believe that there are lessons to be learned from the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

You have anything to add?

Comments

    • Dave Miller says

      I hope this doesn’t become a pro- and anti-MLK debate. I tried to stay away from that. I was focusing on the things we can learn from him and the way he went about his work.

        • cb scott says

          I grew up in Alabama, for the most part. I saw in person what many of you have seen on television or read about in the medium of print. Therefore, I may have a different perspective on some things from that of some of you.

          However, I agree with my good friend Terry Collier of Virginia, who stated, “If I could go back in the history of this nation and hear in person any sermon of my choice, I would hear afresh Martin Luther King preach, ‘I have a Dream.'”

          That single sermon moved my soul even when I was a pagan, Vandal and Visigoth. It has touched my soul several times since I became a follower of Christ.

          I will never forget that sermon.

        • Christiane says

          Hi BDW,
          thank you for sharing that video with us . . . I think it says a great deal about Southern Seminary’s integrity in that time, as a Christian seminary

          you might want to look at this reflection on the life of Dr. King from someone of my own faith if you the time and inclination to do so:
          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ueg9FN4K6hE

  1. says

    CB, you said

    “I grew up in Alabama, for the most part. I saw in person what many of you have seen on television or read about in the medium of print. Therefore, I may have a different perspective on some things from that of some of you.”

    What was your perspective? I’d love to hear it. Lots of people won’t talk about those days very much. Not anymore, anyway.

  2. says

    I agree with what you’ve written, Dave, and I think point #4 is especially pertinent.

    I think there are a lot of folks in churches who are sincere about their faith, but who don’t think they can ever really “count for Christ”. The know themselves as no one else does, and think the sin of which they, and they alone are aware, disqualifies them. Hence, MLK’s example is all the more important, given the thought that he was badly flawed, too.

    All believers who want to do right, and to count, should be encouraged by that.

  3. says

    He was born 10 years before I was . He was smart . He was properly motivated . He became a Baptist preacher . He was smart . He was educated and asked question about Theology during college that thinkers ask themselves and satisfied himself with answers – and continued on . In 1958 Harley-Davidson came out with rear shocks and I was working on them in D.C. In 1963 MLK lead 250,000 on a March on Washington and delivered his ” Dream” speech which you might be interested to know that at the halfway point , he ignored his notes and spoke spontaneously . As a result of big time events that threatened our Law and Order , President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 . Johnson was a rough talking , “bourbon & branch water” drinking Texan who passed more legislation that any other President before him or since . Harley installed electric starters in 1965 . King was smart , motivated , a Baptist preacher that knew where he had to go – where the need was – and the risks involved – and stayed the course – he was killed in 1968 . I had already found my first flying job in Chicago . Today , President Barack Obama knowing full well the risks he and his family face was sworn in for a second term , as he is smart , motivated and wouldn’t have been there if a lot of people hadn’t already paid the price for Freedom . I’m glad the day didn’t pass without something on this Blog about this strong Baptist preacher.

    • cb scott says

      Jack Wolford,

      You have not been around lately.

      You are right. The POTUS would not be where he is had not multitudes before him, both Black and White, “paid the price of freedom.”

      However, let be be shouted from the rooftops of the highest buildings in this nation; The dreams of the POTUS are not the same as those of Martin Luther King.

      Dr. King sought freedom and equality for all people. The POTUS seeks to dismantle freedom for a nation. There is a great gulf between the ideologies of these two men.

      Dr. King sought the rebirth of the foundational goals of this nation. The POTUS seeks the death of the foundational goals of this nation.

  4. says

    Some where in my library and files, there is my review of Corretta Scott King’s biography of her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I wrote it for the Ashland Independent Newspaper of Ashland, Ky. shortly after receiving the review copy from the publisher. One of the things my memory says that I defended Dr. King’s reputation from was the charge that he was a Communist. My answer was simply that he followed the personalist philosophy of E.S. Brightman, one of his professor’s at Boston University. That personalist philosophy does not consort with the collectivism of the Marxian view. There is more, but the greatest speech Dr. King made (and I say this while loving his “I Have a Dream Speech”) was his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize. The latter speech is quieter, but it is even more specific in its commitment to the heart of the Christian Faith in this respect; He said, “UNCONDITIONAL LOVE WILL HAVE THE FINAL WORD IN REALITY!”

  5. Christiane says

    Like so many others of note throughout human history,
    Dr. King came from a powerful tradition that boldly stands up
    and confronts the world with these words:

    “I REFUSE TO BE YOUR ENEMY”

  6. Bennett Willis says

    During the AFC game on Sunday, PBS ran a story on the Freedom Riders. It is available at this link: http://video.pbs.org/video/1925571160/

    It is a couple of hours long, but it is a reminder of where we were and where we have come to. You don’t have to watch it all to be reminded of how things were.

    I was attending a Baptist College in Tennessee in 1961. About that time, people were “integrating” the Woolworth’s dining area there. The Dean of Men came to my dorm and told us that if we were involved in that, we were on our own. The college would not help us in any way. The only way you knew that something was going on was if you watched the list of people who were arrested (as reported by the newspaper). Normally it would be just a few but when there was “action at Woolworth’s” the list would expand to a couple of column inches of small type.

    • Christiane says

      I witnessed the abuse of people sitting in at a counter in Woolworth’s in Norfolk VA on Granby St. when I was a kid, and I have never forgotten what I saw. I think it helped form who I am as an American.

      The victims sat silently, with dignity.
      I can only say that their abusers disgraced only themselves with their comments, as for the people who spit on them, I remember that the victims did not respond in kind, but stood their ground silently.

      That kind of thing you don’t forget.

      • Christiane says

        I suppose, in retrospect, the people who were sitting-in at Woolworth’s were doing it for the sake of all of us.

        That is something to be grateful for. And I am.