On Monday, we will honor of legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
He was a civil rights leader and a political force. But first and foremost, he was a pastor.
Many people like to attribute the title doctor to King, but people are far less comfortable calling him reverend.
His role as a pastor had far more to do with his position in the civil rights movement than did his educational background. His pounding of a pulpit at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church did far more to prepare him for battle than his doctorate of divinity from Boston University.
Even when he entered the political arena to fight for equal rights for people of color, King never left behind his ties to the church.
At many of the rallies, he asked gospel singer Mahalia Jackson to perform her song, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”
It was one of the last things he mentioned before James Earl Ray fired the bullet that ended his life. King found comfort in the lyrics.
“Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on,
Let me stand
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.”
Jackson honored King’s final request to sing the song at his funeral.
His religious beliefs and affiliation were among the driving factors that led to King’s engagement in the fight for civil rights for black people in America more than a century after slavery had been abolished.
He called the civil rights movement a responsibility the church bore due to its position in society.
“The church has a significant role to play in this period because this issue is not just a political issue,” King said. “It is a moral issue and the church has an obligation to be the moral guardian of our society.”
But his role as a pastor did not secure the support of everyone in the religious community.
King was put in jail in Birmingham, Ala., thanks to the local law enforcement reaction to his group’s non-violent civil disobedience.
As he sat in that jail cell, eight Birmingham pastors signed a letter to King about how he shouldn't be forcing the issue of civil rights in the manner he was. They believed that the action should come from the courts, not the streets.
But King knew, and said in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail" that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
Page 2 of 3 - King knew that being asked to wait was just a veiled attempt by his fellow clergymen to hold on to the status quo a little while longer.
After all, King had seen the Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court and yet, 10 years later, most schools in were still segregated.
Court rulings don’t force the same action that legislation brought about by sweeping public opinion does. Those eight pastors knew that. King knew that.
That is why he would not be deterred. Another generation of black people would face inequality if he waited for court cases and subsequent appeals to work out the issue.
So King and those who shared his determination took to the streets of Washington D.C. where he spoke in front of the Lincoln Monument which had been constructed in honor of the man who had penned the Emancipation Proclamation 100 years before.
He left his prepared remarks that day, as preachers often do, when Jackson shouted to him, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.”
King left his speech on the podium and told the crowd, our country’s leaders, and millions more in perpetuity, about his dream for the future of this country.
We haven’t achieved that dream.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed,” King said. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Those words were spoken almost 50 years ago. But racism hasn’t been evicted from the American culture. Even now, black boys and girls are often judged by the color of their skin as much as the content of their character.
Fittingly, Rev. King’s final speech was given in a church – the Mason Temple of God in Christ in Memphis, Tenn.
At the end of that speech, his words ring now as prophecy, “Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't really matter with me now,” he said. ”Because I've been to the mountaintop. 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.”
Page 3 of 3 - I hope his prophecy is one day truly fulfilled. I hope we do find that Promised Land. I hope his dream one day will come true.
Skin color is little more than decoration, but we attribute culture, value and worth to it. We make judgments based on it.
We can do better. We can be the better version of ourselves that Rev. King dreamed we could be.