By David Beam
I remember vividly being in the sixth grade and receiving the assignment to write a “500-word theme” about one of my heroes. To be honest, “themes” were dreaded by one and all at that age and the prospect of having to write 5oo words about anything seemed overwhelming. In spite of my initial shock, and to the dismay of some of my family and a few friends, I knew with laser-like focus the person who had captured my imagination and something deep within me in my short 12 years. Looking back I felt compelled to choose Martin Luther King Jr. as my subject, and the title of my essay came to me just as quickly, “Martin Luther King Jr: the Man, the Message.”
I had heard in sermons at my local United Methodist church that Rev. King was inspired by his deep belief in God’s justice and equality for all to become a civil rights leader. Bits and pieces of his speeches and writings had been lifted up as prophecy and his non-violent actions as the very heart of Jesus’ teaching. From what I had learned, Dr. King had truly spoken the message of God and perhaps that was the beginnings of my hero worship.
He was assassinated on April 4, 1968. I wasn’t quite four years old, but I can vaguely remember hearing the news of his death being announced by Huntley and Brinkley during the six o’clock news and the mixed reaction of my parents. I grew up near Concord, N.C., and though our community struggled with racism, I went to school with “reds, and yellows, blacks and whites” and blessedly we all got along. Race and color didn’t separate us at school; a reality I now know was already the result of Dr. King’s commitment and dream. As I researched my hero at the local library, I learned about segregation, integration, busing, sit-ins, cross-burnings, and the struggle for civil rights that had occurred in our country’s recent past. In the midst of it all, I learned more about Martin Luther King Jr. the man and what singled him out as my hero. I heard from his biographers about his call to ministry, his nickname in college, “Tweed” (because he was always a dapper dresser), his education, his family, and his faith. But it was the stories of his call from his own lips, his struggles with leadership, and his moments of doubt and fear that captured me. All along his journey, the evidence of God’s hand and provision were profoundly clear to him, and God became more real to me in the hearing! His life, and the reality of his legacy, are more than just a dream!
One story he recounts and the report of what happened next continue to resonate with clarity and purpose in my soul and make me more certain of my hero today than at 12 years old. The first is his account (in a speech/sermon called “Our God is Able”) of a sleepless night in Montgomery, Ala., in January 1956 as he struggled to come to terms with leading the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association in spite of threats on his life:
With my courage almost gone, I determined to take my problem to God. My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before experienced him. It seemed as though I could hear a quiet assurance of an inner voice saying, “Stand up for righteousness, stand for the truth. God will be at our side forever.”
Almost at once my fears began to pass from me. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm. (Strength to Love, Martin Luther King Jr., 1963)
Three nights later, Rev. King’s home was bombed. Taylor Branch, in Parting the Waters, tells what happened next:
King walked out onto the front porch. Holding up his hand for silence, he tried to still the anger by speaking with an exaggerated peacefulness in his voice. Everything was all right, he said. “Don’t get panicky. Don’t do anything panicky. Don’t get your weapons. If you have weapons, take them home. He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword. Remember that is what Jesus said. We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love.”
When the crowd of several hundred was silent, he continued, “I did not start this boycott. I was asked by you to serve as your spokesman. I want it to be known the length and breadth of this land that if I am stopped, this movement will not stop. If I am stopped, our work will not stop. For what we are doing is right. What we are doing is just. And God is with us.”
It was the “Preacher King,” as he is called by Dr. Richard Lischer, who first captured my heart and imagination, but it is the “person” King, with all his humanity, who inspired me then and now! God called and equipped a willing servant to lead his people and a nation toward freedom, justice, and the Kingdom of God. May Martin Luther King Jr.’s words from a 1964 speech inspire us all to celebrate the life of this man of God, remember another time when division threatened the church and nation, and remember how God moved to bring unity from uncertainty and move us all toward the Kingdom’s coming!
There are two aspects of the world which we must never forget. One is that this is God’s world, and He is active in the forces of history and the affairs of men. The second is that Jesus Christ gave his life for the redemption of this world and as his followers we are called to give our lives continuing the reconciling work of Christ in this world! (The Preacher King, Dr. Richard Lischer, Oxford University Press, 1995)
Rev. David Beam is the Pastor of First UMC in Franklin, NC