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Bearing the Cross
These three Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes begin Bearing
This is the cross that we must bear
for the freedom of our people.
—October 26, 1960, Reidsville State Prison, Tattnall County, Georgia
The cross we bear precedes the
crown we wear. To be a Christian one must take up his cross, with all of its
difficulties and agonizing and tension-packed content and carry it until that
very cross leaves its marks upon us and redeems us to that more excellent way
which comes only through suffering.
—January 17, 1963, National Conference on Religion & Race, Chicago, Illinois
When I took up the cross, I
recognized its meaning.… The cross is something that you bear, and ultimately
that you die on.
—May 22, 1967, Penn Community Center, Frogmore, South Carolina
Jesus says in a rebuke to Peter, who has just said that
Jesus will not go to Jerusalem and die:
If any man will come after me, let
him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save
his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find
it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his
own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew
In another passage, Jesus says:
He that loveth father or mother
more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than
me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after
me, is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:37-38)
still honoring his parents (the fifth commandment), King followed Jesus’ call
ahead of family. As far as bearing the cross, King was a Christian.
Why Did King Die?
King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Conspiracy theories
aside, if there is a God, why would God allow King to die?
King’s assassination was not the first harmful physical
attack he received – beyond rough treatment at the hand of police and counter-protesters.
Nor was it the first attempt on his life:
- In 1957, as already mentioned, a bomb exploded on his front porch during the Montgomery bus boycott.
- On September 20, 1958, while signing Stride Toward Freedom in New York City, a paranoid schizophrenic Black woman stabbed him in the chest with a letter opener, barely missing his heart. He had to spend a week in hospital after thoracic surgery, and several weeks recuperating at the New York home of a family friend. King said he felt no ill will toward his attacker. (Bearing the Cross, p. 110)
- In September of 1962, at an annual SCLC convention, a young white Virginia Nazi rushed the podium and punched King in the face. King stood his ground and accepted several blows, speaking calmly to him before the attacker was pulled away. (Bearing the Cross, p. 221)
- In May of 1963, during the Birmingham campaign, the motel room where he was staying was bombed. Fortunately, he had left for a quick trip to Atlanta and was not there.
- On May 29, 1964, in St. Augustine, Florida, a cottage that the SCLC had rented for King was shot full of holes. King was not there at the time.
- On August 5, 1966, King was hit in the head by a brick as an angry white mob pelted marchers in the Marquette Park neighborhood of Chicago, as his group was marching for open housing (that is, desegregation). Some of King's aides had warned him not to go to Chicago. He said he had to. "I have to do this," he said as he tried to steady himself after the stoning, "to expose myself - to bring this hate out into the open.” (The Warmth of Other Suns, p. 389)
- Bomb threats delayed or cancelled airplane flights, rallies, meetings.
- He received death threats by phone and mail.
These many attacks and difficulties are reminiscent of the
Apostle Paul in the Bible defending his ministry, listing beatings, stoning,
prisons, shipwrecks, perils everywhere, and anxiety (2 Cor 11:23-29). King said frequently that he would
most likely be killed, but that his life was less important than the cause he
championed. The Apostle Paul and many early Christians were martyred.
Andrew Young was the executive Director of the SCLC, and
later became a US Congressman from Georgia, US Ambassador to the UN, and Mayor
[Young] said “we all expected to die….
You believe in heaven. I’ve never thought death was the end. And Martin
prepared us. He used to joke about it, telling me not to worry – if they killed
me first, he’d preach me the best eulogy ever.” (Under God, p. 249)
Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man
lay down his life for his friends.” [John 15:13] The apostle John expanded on that,
writing “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for
us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” [1 John 3:16] Back in Montgomery, at the
beginning, King was aware of the risk he was taking stepping into leadership. After
JFK was assassinated in 1963, King told Coretta “This is what is going to
happen to me. This is such a sick society.” (Bearing the Cross, p. 307)
As early as 1966, King mentioned to friends and colleagues how tired he was and mused about returning to the life of a preacher in a local church. In late 1967, according to singer Joan Baez (who, like Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis, Jr, and others, performed at benefits for civil rights), he said that “he wanted to just be a preacher, and he was sick of it all. And that the Lord called him to be a preacher, and not to do all this stuff, and he wanted to leave it and he was tired.” (Bearing the Cross, p. 578)
In the Bible, Josiah, King of Judah, died before seeing the evil against his people:
Because thine heart was tender, and
thou hast humbled thyself before the Lord, when thou heardest what I spake
against this place, and against the inhabitants thereof, that they should
become a desolation and a curse, and hast rent thy clothes, and wept before me;
I also have heard thee, saith the Lord.
Behold therefore, I will gather
thee unto thy fathers, and thou shalt be gathered into thy grave in peace; and
thine eyes shall not see all the evil which I will bring upon this place. And
they brought the king word again. (2
King did not have to witness the widespread urban unrest
after his death; the Robert F. Kennedy assassination; Richard Nixon win the presidency
twice; and the Vietnam War continue seven more years. (In the “mountaintop” speech, he lists all the things he was
able to witness.) On the other hand, in the immediate wake of his death, the
Memphis sanitation strike was swiftly resolved, and the Fair Housing Act of
1968 (Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968) was passed, both likely due
in part as a memorial to King.
In April of 1967, while preaching in Chicago, King said:
I don’t want a long funeral. In fact,
I don’t even need a eulogy of more than one or two minutes…. I don’t know how
long I’ll live, and I’m not concerned about that. But I hope I can live so well
that the preacher can get up and say he was faithful. That’s all, that’s
enough. That’s the sermon I’d like to hear. “Well done thou good and faithful
25:21] “You’ve been faithful; you’ve been concerned about others.” That’s
where I want to go from this point on, the rest of my days. “He who is greatest
among you shall be your servant.” [Matthew
23:11] I want to be a servant. I want to be a witness for my Lord, do
something for others. (Bearing the Cross, p. 555)
The Greek origin of the term martyr is “witness.”
Michael Eric Dyson writes that “martyrdom saved him [King] from becoming a
pariah to the white mainstream.” (April 4, 1968, p.54)
Another viewpoint comes from detective fiction novelist George
Pelecanos, author of Hard Revolution (2004):
I was eleven years old in 1968. Two
months after the riots [in the wake of King’s assassination], I took a bus
every day down to my father’s lunch counter, where I worked as a delivery boy.
The D.C. Transit passed through parts of town that had been completely
destroyed. Some of the people on the bus had lost entire neighborhoods, but
clearly they had won something too. I could see it in their posture, style of
dress, and attitude.
In Memphis the day after King’s assassination, SCLC member
and minister James Bevel preached this in the striking worker’s hall:
There’s a false rumor around that
our leader’s dead. Our leader is not dead. Martin Luther King is not our
leader. Our leader is the man who led Moses out of Egypt. Our leader is the man
who went with Daniel into the lion’s den. Our leader is the man who walked out
of the grave on Easter morning. Our leader never sleeps nor slumbers. He cannot
be put in jail. He has never lost a war yet. Our leader is still on the case.
Our leader is not dead. One of his prophets died. (Under God, p. 205)
What had once been gossip and ignored by fans of Dr. King,
was allegedly caught on tape by the FBI. What about this adultery? Didn’t that
make King a hypocrite, or unworthy of leadership? Anyone familiar with the
Bible would know the story King David and his adultery with Bathsheba, and his
subsequent arrangement of her husband’s death. These sins were forgiven by God
due to David’s repentance and God’s mercy (see Psalm 51), and he kept his throne, though
losing their child. Yet we still read David’s Psalms and say he was a “man after God’s own heart.”
What about King’s alleged plagiarism in his PhD thesis? I say
“alleged” because King never got to defend himself from that charge. It was not
made at the time, but later, after King’s renown had grown. A 1991 academic
inquiry found passages lacking citations but did not recommend rescinding his
Doctorate. I would say that his PhD was nice to have, but not essential to
The two things I learned about King after I became a Christian
that opened my heart and mind about his faith were the kitchen table prayer and
the deeper meaning of the mountaintop speech. These spurred me to learn more
about him. I believe I have demonstrated my two goals:
1. MLK was a genuine Christian:
- Led by the Holy Spirit: the kitchen table prayer which was answered by God
- Transformed by the spirit from a green pastor into a courageous leader
- Bearing his cross: he was willing to sacrifice, even die, for others
- Loving his enemies, praying for those who despitefully used him
2. His faith was instrumental to his role in the Civil
- King felt God’s calling to lead this movement, and this gave him strength to persist.
- His theological journey led him to nonviolence.
- The Bible gave King guidance, wisdom, examples, and spiritual ammunition.
- His prophetic calling led him to speak out against segregation, poverty, and war.