Recalling the legacy of MLK

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his “I have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Aug. 28, 1963.

By Ch. (Lt. Col.) Grace Hollis
Deputy Garrison Chaplain
USAG Stuttgart

It’s been 52 years since the assassination of social activist, Baptist minister and Civil Rights hero Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  One would think half a century is ample time for a nation to be further along in the fight for equality and justice for the human race.

Unfortunately, more time is needed.  However, through MLK’s life, we are reminded of a dream for humanity that still has the potential and promise to be a reality.  Therefore, we pause, on Jan. 15, to honor and commemorate this great man’s life and recommit ourselves to the call to fight for equality and justice for all.

How do we recommit ourselves to continue to fight for a dream born 52 years ago on Aug. 28, 1968, where some 200,000 to 300,000 participants gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the monument to the president who, a century earlier, had brought down the institution of slavery in the United States?  How do we recommit ourselves to share in Dr. King’s vision that “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.”

I submit to you that recommitment to the dream can be found in the dreamer himself and the embers of fire that burned within in his soul.  The embers that ignited MLK’s fire to courageously stand in the face of danger and give voice to those who are silenced had its foundation in his upbringing.

Born into a legacy of preachers and pastors, Martin grew up in a family that was steeped in the tradition of the Southern black ministry.  His great-grandfather, Willis Williams, was a preacher, and both his father and maternal grandfather were Baptist preachers of the prestigious Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Martin’s grandfather, A.D. Williams, was born to slaves Willis and Lucrecia Williams in Greene County, Georgia, and spent his childhood years on a plantation.  His desire to follow in his father’s footsteps, an old slavery-time preacher, became a reality when he and his family moved to Atlanta in 1893 where he took over the small, struggling Ebenezer Baptist church with around 13 members and made it into a forceful congregation.

As pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church for more than 25 years, Williams infused his ministry with social activism by helping found the Atlanta chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. King’s father had succeeded his father-in-law as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Martin’s faith, social activism and since of justice and equality ran deep within his veins as it was passed down from generation-to-generation.  This is not to say that he did not struggle with his purpose and calling.  MLK Jr. initially decided against entering the ministry, much to his father’s dismay.  Nevertheless, destiny prevailed when in his junior year at Morehouse College; Martin took a Bible class, renewed his faith and began to envision a career in the ministry. In the fall of his senior year, he told his father of his decision.

Martin’s renewed sense of calling to raise a nation’s conscience that there is neither a black race nor a white race but only the ‘human’ race – began with a renewed faith in God.  A faith that he defines as:  “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”  Martin Luther King Jr would take many steps of faith without seeing the whole staircase.

Every time he left his home, office, a restaurant or any other public place – Martin Luther King Jr took steps of faith.  He took steps of faith through every demonstration, confrontation and humiliation that he endured.  Whether thrown into jail, living under the constant threat of death, being stabbed in the chest with a knife at a book signing in Harlem, NY or his home being bombed blasted with his family escaping by a mere handbreadth.  MLK Jr., stated in his memoirs, “The experience of these last few days has deepened my faith in the relevance of the spirit of nonviolence, if necessary social change is peacefully to take place.”

There is no doubt, there were times MLK Jr felt fear and was afraid for his own welfare and that of his family.  However, there are moments in life that if ‘faith steps in – fear will step out.’  I believe this is what happened for MLK Jr on Friday night, January 27, 1956 as he wearily made his way home after another planning session for the way forward.  Entering his home, with Coretta asleep, Martin paced the floor with his nerves on edge from all the death-threatening phone calls he received – sometimes 40 calls in one day.

The phone rings again with a sneering voice on the other end: “Leave Montgomery immediately if you have no wish to die.” Naturally, King’s fear rises; he hangs up the phone, walks to his kitchen and with trembling hands, puts on a pot of coffee and sinks into a chair at his kitchen table.  Here was the prelude to King’s most profound spiritual experience. He describes it in his book “Stride Toward Freedom:”

I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With 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 experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”

Three days later, his house was bombed with he and his family narrowly escaping. With his faith renewed, King later wrote, “I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it.”

Let us start the New Year off right by recommitting ourselves to live a life of faith that is courageous enough to stand up for justice, truth and equality for all.