Tomorrow is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day – a national holiday set aside to remember one of the greatest agents for peace in our nation’s history. Today I’d like to examine a few of Dr. King’s quotes, some of their ties to Scripture, and, in remembering him, we’ll discuss how they might apply to us today.
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?'”
~Martin Luther King, Jr.
Most, if not all of us are familiar with the life and work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Today, I thought we might spend just a little time remembering his work as an Agent For Change. And, with tomorrow being Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I thought we might discuss ways in which we can celebrate this holiday beyond what is for some, just having an excuse for a day off.
To begin, I’d like to share a little history that I found on History.com:
Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery Bus Boycott
The King family had been living in Montgomery for less than a year when the highly segregated city became the epicenter of the burgeoning struggle for civil rights in America, galvanized by the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision of 1954. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks (1913-2005), secretary of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery bus and was arrested. Activists coordinated a bus boycott that would continue for 381 days, placing a severe economic strain on the public transit system and downtown business owners. They chose Martin Luther King Jr. as the protest’s leader and official spokesman.
By the time the Supreme Court ruled segregated seating on public buses unconstitutional in November 1956, King, heavily influenced by Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) and the activist Bayard Rustin (1912-1987), had entered the national spotlight as an inspirational proponent of organized, nonviolent resistance. (He had also become a target for white supremacists, who firebombed his family home that January.) Emboldened by the boycott’s success, in 1957 he and other civil rights activists–most of them fellow ministers–founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a group committed to achieving full equality for African Americans through nonviolence. (Its motto was “Not one hair of one head of one person should be harmed.”) He would remain at the helm of this influential organization until his death.
King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
In his role as SCLC president, Martin Luther King Jr. traveled across the country and around the world, giving lectures on nonviolent protest and civil rights as well as meeting with religious figures, activists and political leaders. (During a month-long trip to India in 1959, he had the opportunity to meet Gandhi, the man he described in his autobiography as “the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.”) King also authored several books and articles during this time.
In 1960 King and his family moved to Atlanta, his native city, where he joined his father as co-pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. This new position did not stop King and his SCLC colleagues from becoming key players in many of the most significant civil rights battles of the 1960s. Their philosophy of nonviolence was put to a particularly severe test during the Birmingham campaign of 1963, in which activists used a boycott, sit-ins and marches to protest segregation, unfair hiring practices and other injustices in one of America’s most racially divided cities. Arrested for his involvement on April 12, King penned the civil rights manifesto known as the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” an eloquent defense of civil disobedience addressed to a group of white clergymen who had criticized his tactics.
King Marches for Freedom
Later that year, Martin Luther King Jr. worked with a number of civil rights and religious groups to organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a peaceful political rally designed to shed light on the injustices African Americans continued to face across the country. Held on August 28 and attended by some 200,000 to 300,000 participants, the event is widely regarded as a watershed moment in the history of the American civil rights movement and a factor in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The march culminated in King’s most famous address, known as the “I Have a Dream” speech, a spirited call for peace and equality that many consider a masterpiece of rhetoric.
Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial–a monument to the president who a century earlier had brought down the institution of slavery in the United States—he shared his vision of a future in which “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.'” The speech and march cemented King’s reputation at home and abroad; later that year he was named Man of the Year by TIME magazine and in 1964 became the youngest person ever awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
In the spring of 1965, King’s elevated profile drew international attention to the violence that erupted between white segregationists and peaceful demonstrators in Selma, Alabama, where the SCLC and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had organized a voter registration campaign. Captured on television, the brutal scene outraged many Americans and inspired supporters from across the country to gather in Selma and take part in a march to Montgomery led by King and supported by President Lyndon Johnson (1908-1973), who sent in federal troops to keep the peace. That August, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which guaranteed the right to vote–first awarded by the 15th Amendment–to all African Americans.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Years and Assassination
The events in Selma deepened a growing rift between Martin Luther King Jr. and young radicals who repudiated his nonviolent methods and commitment to working within the established political framework. As more militant black leaders such as Stokely Carmichael (1941-1998) rose to prominence, King broadened the scope of his activism to address issues such as the Vietnam War and poverty among Americans of all races. In 1967, King and the SCLC embarked on an ambitious program known as the Poor People’s Campaign, which was to include a massive march on the capital.
On the evening of April 4, 1968, King was fatally shot while standing on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, where he had traveled to support a sanitation workers’ strike. In the wake of his death, a wave of riots swept major cities across the country, while President Johnson declared a national day of mourning.
James Earl Ray (1928-1998), an escaped convict and known racist, pleaded guilty to the murder and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. (He later recanted his confession and gained some unlikely advocates, including members of the King family, before his death in 1998.)
After years of campaigning by activists, members of Congress and Coretta Scott King, among others, in 1983 President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) signed a bill creating a U.S. federal holiday in honor of King. Observed on the third Monday of January, it was first celebrated in 1986.
Agents For Change
Rev. Dr. King was one of the greatest agents for change in American history. And his ideals were deeply rooted in Scripture. I’d like to share a few of his quotes, and some Scripture that not only supports his statements, but can be used by us today so that we, too, can be Agents For Change.
- John 13:34 – “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
- MLK – “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”
- Matthew 7:12 – “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”
- MLK – Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others.'”
- 1 John 2:9 – “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness.”
- MLK – “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
- Romans 10:12 – “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him,”
- MLK – “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
- Romans 2:11 – “For God does not show favoritism.”
- MLK – “Red and Yellow, Black and White…We’re all precious in His sight.”
National Day of Service
Rev. Dr. King truly lived by the principles taught by Scripture. So can we. We just have to set our minds to it. If we simply remember these few Scriptures, and apply them in our lives every day, we too will be Agents For Change. One of the ways we can do this is by commemorating Martin Luther King Day as a Day of Service. How many of us here today even knew that there is a National Day of Service in honor of Martin Luther King Day? Well, there is. In answer to the question posed in our opening quote – What are you doing for others? – Americans across the country come together each year on the King Holiday to serve their neighbors and communities. The MLK Day of Service is a part of United We Serve, the President’s national call to service initiative. It calls for Americans from all walks of life to work together to provide solutions to our most pressing national problems. It’s a chance to start the year off right by making an impact in your community. (Note – you can read more here.)
As a church, we already do a lot – and I commend you all. Let me share just some of the ways we already serve our community:
- First and foremost, our worship services are open to everyone – red, yellow, white, black, brown, straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, those who are housed, those who are houseless, those who are dressed up and those who are dressed down, believers and non-believers alike.
- Our monthly drum circle provides an opportunity for our community to come together and celebrate this wonderful life God has given us, regardless of our particular faith traditions.
- Our monthly LGBTQ Coffee Social and Game night provides an opportunity for members of the LGBTQ community to gather and socialize in a safe, welcoming, and supportive atmosphere.
- Our movie night provides the opportunity to bring the community together, to break down barriers, and to examine topical issues from a God-centered perspective.
- Our Military Family Readiness Group provides support to the families of our military who are, or who will be, deployed.
- By opening our doors as a warming center, we have provided warmth, shelter, and food to over 125 people in just the past four weeks.
- And finally, through our Community Give-back Program we will be sending out over $2,500.00; providing assistance and services to paralyzed veterans, food for the hungry and needy, education of our youth, funding children’s cancer research, and providing assistance to Christian ministers worldwide in times of trouble or disaster.
As we gather for fellowship after our service, I’d like us to talk about even more ways in which we can be of service to others, individually and collectively, tomorrow and in the days, weeks, and months to come. Will it always be easy? No. It wasn’t for Dr. King, either. But, if we walk close to Jesus, as Philippians 4:13 tells us, “I can do everything through Him who gives me strength.”
I truly believe it is when we answer Rev. Dr. King’s question that we live our lives as examples of Christ’s love shining through us, and we, too, will be Agents For Change.
- John 13:34
- Matthew 7:12
- 1 John 2:9
- Romans 10:12
- Romans 2:11
- Philippians 4:13
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