Commentary by Greg Baker ~
Cultural transformation does not come through winning arguments, legal battles, or elections. It does not come through hateful rhetoric or violence.
As a leader in the Civil Rights Movement, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. understood that if you want to transform a nation, it must be done through spiritual transformation. He changed the world by boldly speaking truth and refusing to return evil for evil. If we want true transformation today, we must do the same.
Martin Luther King Jr. was born on Jan. 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, the son of a Baptist minister. His original name was Michael, but his father changed both he and his son’s name to Martin Luther after a moving spiritual visit to Germany in 1934. Martin Luther King Jr. attended Crozer Theological Seminary and later received his doctorate from Boston University. In 1954, at the age of 25, Martin Luther King Jr. was called to be a pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
Just one year later, life began to change for Dr. King. In March of 1955, Claudette Colvin, a pregnant 15-year-old black woman, refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white man, violating Montgomery city laws. She was handcuffed and arrested. That same year, in December, Rosa Parks would refuse to give up her seat on a city bus and was arrested. These, and other events, led Dr. King and other community members to organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
The boycott took an economic toll on the bus system, but the city would not go down without a fight. City leaders persuaded insurance companies to refuse to insure any cars that were being used to carpool African-Americans and they forced all cabs to charge a uniform $.45, rather than the $.10 rate that had been charged by drivers supporting the boycott.
But that didn’t stop the black community. They walked, rode bikes, and some even rode horses and mules. Sidewalks were packed and buses were empty. Black churches across the nation raised money to buy new shoes for those who were participating in the boycott.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. understood that if you want to transform a nation, it must be done through spiritual transformation.
When it became clear to segregationists that they were not going to win, they resorted to violence. King’s home was firebombed, along with four Baptist churches. The boycott did not come to an end until June 4, 1956, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation laws for buses were unconstitutional.
Martin Luther King Jr. became known for civil disobedient acts, such as the boycott, and through them this Baptist preacher would change the world. Malcom X and others claimed these efforts would be fruitless, arguing only through pain could America be changed. But Martin Luther King Jr. never believed that. He had a respect for man and believed that people would be won over by love rather than violence and hateful rhetoric.
“By opening our lives to God in Christ, we become new creatures. This experience, which Jesus spoke of as the new birth, is essential if we are to be transformed,” Dr. King said. “Only through an inner spiritual transformation do we gain the strength to fight vigorously the evils of the world in a humble and loving spirit.”
Darkest before the dawn
In the darkest hour of the Civil Rights Movement, King and fellow activists shined the brightest. In April 1963, black people in Birmingham, Alabama, occupied public spaces with marches and sit-ins, openly violating segregation laws they viewed as unjust. Though these protests were peaceful, Birmingham Police Chief Eugene Connor used high-pressure water jets and police dogs against protestors, including children. Many protestors were arrested, including Rev. King.
Following his 13th arrest, Rev. King wrote the famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he said, “Wherever the early Christians entered a town, the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But they went on with the conviction that they were a ‘colony of heaven’ and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’ They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest. Things are different now. The contemporary Church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the Church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the Church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.”
Dr. King’s labor in Birmingham was not in vain. What happened in Birmingham shined a light on the terrible atrocities happening to blacks across the nation. Just a few months after Birmingham, King would give the famous “I have a dream” speech in front of 250,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial.
Just prior to the speech, Rev. King met with President Kennedy to discuss a national civil rights law. He would contact President Kennedy to discuss civil rights 13 times throughout his presidency.
In their final communication King wrote: “I will sincerely plead with my people to remain non-violent in the face of this terrible provocation. However, I am convinced, that unless some steps are taken by the federal government … my pleas shall fall on deaf ears, and we shall see the worst racial holocaust the nation has ever seen.”
Dr. King’s words and endless efforts were heard, and in July 1964 the Civil Rights Act passed, just over a year after Birmingham. King’s efforts of civil disobedience motivated not by hate or bitterness, but rather by love, had worked.
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a pastor that changed the world. He was a good shepherd. Like all men, he was not perfect, but he was committed to serving Christ. Just as the prophets Nathan and Elijah stood up to kings who did wrong, so did Dr. King. He stood up against injustice in government and corrected the “king.”
Yet King’s stand did not come without sacrifice. Like many men of God before him, it cost Dr. King his life. He was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.
We can learn much from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We must stand up to injustice that we see in the world. As the church, we must correct our government when it is walking away from the heart of God. We must not do so with violence and hatred. Rather we must do so with the love of Christ.
“Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies,'” Dr. King said. “It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals.”