Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Martin Luther King Jr., Christian, Part 4

Want to start at Part 1?

Bearing the Cross

These three Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes begin Bearing the Cross:

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 16:24-26)

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)

While 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 of Atlanta:

[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)

Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr., and Joan Baez, at the Stars for Freedom tour benefitting the SCLC, Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena, photographed by Bob Fitch on October 15, 1967. From Stanford University Libraries Department of Special Collections and University Archives. 

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 Kings 22:19-20)

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 servant.” [Matthew 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 About…?

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 King’s mission.   


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 Rights movement:

  • 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.
Continue to Part 5, including Prequel, Personal Connection, Bibliography, and The End.

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