It’s fifty years since Martin Luther King Jnr stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and received a fatal gunshot wound to the face, bringing his life to an abrupt and violent end. As jolting and unexpected as this dreadful moment was, in some ways it was not a surprise. At least not to him.
For over a decade King had been the leader of the American Civil Rights Movement. He’d been arrested and imprisoned dozens of times, had his life threatened and his character smeared by the FBI. He’d narrowly survived being stabbed in the chest by a mentally ill woman. All this time, King and his followers had patiently endured violence and vicious racism, answering it with a policy of passive resistance, strategically taking this non-violent resistance to the most perilous parts of America.
King knew that danger was part of the territory and he accepted it.
But he didn’t initially. In 1955 King became a somewhat reluctant leader of the Montgomery Bus boycott, a year-long, ultimately successful protest against the injustices black people experienced on public transport in Alabama. At that stage, King was a relatively unknown pastor of a small Baptist church in Montgomery. But his gifts as an orator made him an obvious spokesperson for the movement. His eventual commitment to the cause made him its undisputed leader.
Early in the struggle, a personal epiphany proved vital in providing him with what he needed to play this role. During the bus boycott, he received a phone call at home telling him to stop what he was doing or he and his family would be killed. It was no idle threat. Plenty of people had already lost their lives for this cause.
King was rattled by the phone call and sat down at his kitchen table, and prayed for strength he felt he didn’t have. Albert J Raboteau, professor of Religion at Princeton University, who is an expert in the African American Religious experience, says King believed that he received an answer to this prayer. “He said he heard a voice speaking to him, saying, “Martin Luther King Jr., stand up for what’s right, stand up for justice, and I will never abandon you. I’ll never leave you alone,” says Raboteau. “For King, that kitchen table experience became … the rock-solid basis for his activism even though he knew as his life went on that he was not going to die in bed.”
The late Christopher Hitchens, rightly acclaimed as a journalist and author, was an admirer of King but refused to attribute any of his activism to his faith. “In no real, as opposed to nominal sense … was he a Christian,” Hitchens wrote. Such a statement would have bemused King, who was so thoroughly soaked in the experience of the African American church and the black social justice movement, that he saw the entire endeavour of civil rights activism as emanating from that foundation. “For King, non-violence was not simply a tactic, it was a way of life that reflected the Creator, in whose image and likeness all of us were made,” says Albert Raboteau.
“I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
Early in the struggle, King’s resolve was tested. Just days after his kitchen table revelation King’s house was firebombed with his wife and daughter inside. They were unhurt but that night his outraged supporters gathered at the front of the house determined to fight and seek revenge on behalf of their leader.
King addressed the mob and told them to go home. They were not going to do things this way, he said, but would follow in the way of Jesus. They would choose non-violence. He even said they were to go and love their white brothers, no matter what. It’s an incredible reaction from someone who had just been attacked—revenge being a much more natural response. But eventually, King’s approach became essential to the movement and its success.
“As a theologian and as a leader of one of the great civil rights movements of all time, Martin Luther King has had a significant impact both here in the United States and around the world,” says Dr Maria Stephan, Senior Advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington DC. “King was able to apply the Christian notion of love and connect it to the Gandhian method of non-violent resistance in a very powerful way.”
The theologian William Cavanaugh believes King’s tactics reflected a belief that God identifies with the victim of injustice. “Martin Luther King brought bodies out into the streets, and when they got clubbed it became obvious to see on whose side justice really was. And that, I think, is a kind of enactment of the story of Christ,” says Cavanaugh.
The night before his death, from the pulpit of the Mason Temple in Memphis, King delivered what became perhaps his most famous sermon. To read or watch it today, it’s impossible not to be moved by its eerily prophetic message. After reviewing the years of struggle for civil rights for his people, he suddenly stops and says, “But it doesn’t matter with me now.” Silence descends on the congregation in the pause before he goes on, “Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
We are all painfully aware that King’s promised land still awaits African-Americans. But fifty years on, it’s worth reflecting on King’s journey, his vision, and its promise.
Simon Smart is Executive Director of the Centre for Public Christianity. He is co-presenter of the documentary “For the Love of God: How the Church is Better and Worse Than You Ever Imagined.”