Martin Luther King Jr. – 20th Century Prophet

© 2020 Jim Spence - When one explores college courses at most American universities regarding the “Bible,” he or she will find it is taught as literature, rather than the “Inspired word of God.” Of course, there are many reasons for this change. For starters, the history of human conduct towards advancing the faiths of both Judaism and Christianity, like virtually all other religions, has not been without thousands of regrettable episodes of violence. Often when actions have been taken, supposedly for the sake of supporting various interpretations of proper faith, the result has been violent deaths. Still, history teaches us that there have been several profoundly wise prophets, who have implored believers to make beneficial changes in behavior, while often deploring the moral bankruptcy of the allegedly faithful.

As an exercise in understanding human nature, briefly consider three prophets. Jeremiah issued warnings to Israel’s leaders of pending disaster. They went unheeded. The changes Jeremiah called for were simply far too unpopular for politicians to embrace. Much later in human history prophet John the Baptist accurately foretold of not just the arrival of Jesus, but of the monumental implications. Regardless of your views on the Bible or Christianity, to say that Jesus of Nazareth changed the world, is no stretch at all. Revolutionary monk Martin Luther was also prophetic. Luther became a catalyst for dynamic changes in Europe. This came after Luther rejected how the Roman Catholic Church, under Pope Leo X, had come to finance an ostentatiously ornate remodeling project of the Vatican, with tainted funds from the proceeds of, “indulgence certificates.” These documents were sold to sinners and their families for cold hard cash, in lieu of repentance. Luther served as a catalyst for changes in the way all Christian churches were administered.

In the end, the prophet Jeremiah was imprisoned and beaten, the prophet John the Baptist was imprisoned and executed, and Christian reformer Martin Luther was excommunicated and threatened with death that forced him into hiding.

This brings us to a discussion of the life and teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. arguably the most important prophet since Martin Luther five hundred years ago. Martin Luther King Jr.’s father, also a pastor, was a great admirer of 16th century Christian reformer Martin Luther, mainly because he revered his courage as well as the logical reforms Luther sought. Lost in the overwhelmingly secular nature of modern American folklore, recollections of Martin Luther King Jr.’s storied life are not always centered, as his life was, on the depth of his Christian faith.

It was Martin Luther King Jr.’s Christian faith that formed the foundation of his vision, not the other way around. King memorized and sang hymns and Bible verses before he was five years old. On many occasions, using his incredibly rich voice, King sang hymns to enthralled church parishioners, while his mother accompanied him on the piano. Though this fact receives no attention in pop culture today, King’s favorite hymn was, "I Want to Be More and More Like Jesus."

In 1947 King chose to enter the ministry at just eighteen years of age. Later in life King would say being a pastor was his chosen way to satisfy his, "Inner urge to serve humanity."

Folklore on King also rarely mentions the fact that he came very close to being part of a mixed-race marriage. During his third year at divinity school King became romantically involved with Betty Moitz, a white girl. It was King’s intention to marry Moitz, however, most of his friends advised against a permanent relationship, telling him that it would provoke animosity within both races and also likely prevent him from ever becoming the pastor of any church in the American south. King’s own mother was particularly adamant in her opposition to the relationship. “We were madly, madly in love, the way young people can fall in love,” Moitz told author Patrick Parr shortly before her death in 2016. The rest as they say is history. Eventually, and with a heavy heart, King ended the romance and later he married Coretta Scott. It would be perhaps the last important “conventional” decision King ever made.

In 1954, at the age of just 25, King began his career as a Christian pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He also actively embraced the fledgling civil rights movement. Gradually, thanks to the strength of his oratorical skills and his vision, King became the face of the cause.

Perhaps the least publicized moments of King’s amazing life as a 20th century prophet, came on September 20, 1958 when he was signing copies of his book, “Stride Toward Freedom,” in a department store in Harlem, New York. Izola Curry, a black woman, suddenly and viscously attacked King. She stabbed him in the chest with a letter opener. King narrowly escaped death after he underwent emergency surgery and was hospitalized for several weeks.

In many ways King’s 20th century trials and tribulations parallel those of Jeremiah, John the Baptist, and his namesake, Martin Luther. Like each of his prophetic predecessors, King grew up in difficult times, called for radical changes in behavior, and suffered countless indignities.

As a child, Martin Luther King Jr. was forced like all black children of that era, to learn the lessons of a mostly racialized America. Peacemaking does not come naturally to most human beings. When Martin Luther King Jr. was a little boy, he began to play with a white boy roughly his same age. His playmate would visit the business owned by his father, which was across the street from the King family home. At age six, living in segregated Atlanta, King began attending a school for black children only. Soon after he began elementary school, the parents of his white playmate ended the two friend’s playtime together, based on the children’s different skin colors. This incident would have a profound effect that served as an early trigger for King’s vision and future hopes and dreams. His initial reaction was not surprising. Much later an adult Martin Luther King Jr. would admit that as a child, his very first reaction to overt racism during his early childhood was to be, "Determined to hate every white person." Fortunately, it was the wisdom and abiding faith of King’s parents that interceded. King received an admonishment for his attitude. King’s parents taught the future prophet that it was his, “Christian duty to love everyone.”

King learned his lessons well. Decades later when he gave his most famous speech, "I Have a Dream,” at the Lincoln Memorial, he echoed the lesson of his youth. It is instructive to revisit King’s remarkable prophecy:

“I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day 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 have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

It is more than disturbing that King’s non-violent message of racial harmony is in danger of being cast aside, as racial strife is being re-ignited by distinctly political forces in 21st century America. All of America would do well to take a deep breath and remind itself that at the heart of King’s teachings, was his non-violent Christian faith. It was this principle that defined Martin Luther King Jr. 

Advocacy of non-violence won King hundreds of millions of admirers. The Reverend Billy Graham once bailed Martin Luther King Jr. out of jail after one of King’s many arrests and incarcerations for staging and participating in marches against the oppression of Jim Crow laws.

Understandably, King was not as popular in some quarters. In some segments of American society that now claim to have endorsed his efforts and his legacy, there is no acknowledgement of transgressions. Nation of Islam member Malcolm X, was not a fan of King. Malcolm X called King’s historical March on Washington, where he gave his infamous, “I Have a Dream” speech, the "Farce on Washington." Malcolm X and other leaders of the Nation of Islam went so far as to forbid its members from attending the march. In short, Malcom X, now seen as a folk hero by pop culture, was strongly opposed to the prophecies of King.

King delivered another prophetic address during his short life that became known as his, "How Long, Not Long," speech. Profoundly, King accurately foretold the victory of the civil rights movement. He shrugged off the slowness of America requiring one hundred years for that victory when he wisely reminded us that the pace was slow, "Because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

King’s final and most prophetic public statements were made in Memphis, Tennessee in his, "I've Been to the Mountaintop," speech. Fittingly, he gave this address at the world headquarters of the Church of God in Christ. The background was that King's flight into Memphis had been delayed by a bomb threat. King said the following to his listeners:

“And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats, that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. 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.”

He was murdered a short time later.

Please consider the noblest intentions of this great 20th century prophet. Martin Luther King Jr. through the essential elements of his legendary teachings, reaffirmed his mission just prior to his death, when he said, “I just want to do God’s will.”

What did King mean by this?

King’s favorite church hymn was, “I Want to be More and More Like Jesus.”

At an early age he embraced the instruction of his Christian parents that he had a duty to, “love everyone.”

King chose a career in the Christian ministry to satisfy his, "Inner urge to serve humanity."

Most important to 21st century American context, King’s dream reflected devout faith. He utterly rejected all forms of violent conflict. In his own words he dreamed of the descendants of former slaves and former slave owners, “Sitting down together at the table of brotherhood.”

His dreams also included the hopes for his children and all others to be judged solely by the, “Content of their character.”

King called only on America’s best instincts when he expressed the hope that “Little black boys and black girls would join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

It is no accident that King declared his faith on the eve of his death, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” he said in Memphis on that fateful night.

It would seem, with violent re-racialization riots breaking out all over the nation, as well as racially motivated attacks on innocent victims, it is going to once again be up to believers of all races, to rescue this nation from its lowest impulses.

Finally, there are no “sides” to be chosen from in America, as indicated by those hoping to re-racialize the psyche of the nation for political purposes. As violence continues to be the result of organized efforts to perpetuate the idea that we all must re-racialize our thought processes, the legacy and memory of the great 20th century prophet Martin Luther King Jr. and all that he accomplished decades ago, is truly being betrayed. Fittingly, it will be up to all of us who believe, as Martin Luther King Sr. and Alberta King did. It is our Christian duty to "love everyone." We should pray for guidance, and do everything we can to continue to maintain the fulfillment of his dreams, instead of watching idly while others destroy them.

Not surprisingly, King’s final words in life were also incredibly prophetic. On the balcony of his hotel right before he was killed, to musician Ben Branch, King said, "Ben, make sure you play 'Take My Hand, Precious Lord' in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty."

Branch was scheduled to perform, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” a song written by Tommy Dorsey:

Lead me on, let me stand

I'm tired, I’m weak, I’m lone

Through the storm, through the night

Lead me on to the light

Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

When my way grows drear precious Lord linger near

When my light is almost gone

Hear my cry, hear my call

Hold my hand lest I fall

Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

When the darkness appears, and the night draws near

And the day is past and gone

At the river I stand

Guide my feet, hold my hand

Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

Precious Lord, take my hand

Lead me on, let me stand

I'm tired, I’m weak, I’m lone

Through the storm, through the night

Lead me on to the light

Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

Indeed America, it is time to be once again be led back to peace and brotherhood instead of being encouraged to re-racialize and tear ourselves apart. After all that Martin Luther King Jr. sacrificed to get us to this point, how can we chose to simply abandon all he accomplished and pretend he failed?

Don't do it.