Why America Remembers Martin Luther King, Jr. On This Day
There are good reasons why America remembers Martin Luther King, Jr. on this day. He left a legacy of lifting up the poor and marginalized. He demonstrated the power of the gospel in tangible ways. And he continues to challenge us, even 55 years after his death, on how we should live today.
King’s Life and Legacy
King was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. He was the son of a Baptist pastor and attended Morehouse College, then received a doctorate in theology in 1955. King was a young pastor in Montgomery, Alabama when he helped lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott. That led to the 1964 Civil Rights Act which banned racial discrimination in public places, employment, and education. In 1964, King was the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize. He traveled all across the United States to preach, train civil rights protestors, and join forces with those who were seeking to end discrimination.
His most famous speech was the “I Have a Dream” speech delivered in 1963 during the March on Washington. In one of the most stirring works of oratory in America’s history, King said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character….I have a dream today…I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established as a holiday in cities and states throughout the United States beginning in 1971. The holiday was enacted at the federal level by legislation signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.
King’s legacy of non-violence and advocacy still impacts people across America. His words seem just as true — perhaps more so today — than they did three generations before.
As we remember his life, it’s a good time to pause and reflect: How will you be remembered? What will be the words that you speak that will continue to impact people?
Many people forget that King’s activist character flowed from an abiding belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ. He was first and foremost a pastor. Every speech he gave, whether in a church hall, on the courthouse steps, or in a civic auditorium, called people to lift up their eyes to a God-given, higher vision. He drew deeply from the words of the Biblical prophets and found practical applications.
I will never forget the day when I was able to visit the sanctuary and parsonage of Dexter King Memorial Baptist Church, where King pastored during the Montgomery Bus Boycott (sparked by Rosa Parks). After a bomb threat, King experienced a profound sense of God’s presence in the kitchen. He heard God say, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.”
After hearing that inner voice, he immediately felt the lifting of his fears. His faith was strengthened and his resolve was buoyed. He continued to preach and lead people to practice love over hate and faith over fear. He believed that the foundational need in America with regard to racial equality is not legal (while important), but moral.
The good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is more than spiritual in nature. It is also practical. It informs how we treat one another. It calls us to cross divides to love our neighbors. Sometimes the ethical teachings of Jesus have profound moral, social, and even political ramifications.
How would our society be different if we put Jesus’ words into practice that we should do to others as we would have them do to us? How would we experience greater wholeness if we sought to advocate for the needs of the poor not just on a personal level, but as the responsibility of a society that bears Jesus’ name in so many ways?
King’s Enduring Voice
Like most other pastors, I have been impacted by King’s pastoral and leadership voice. He spoke the truth in love when many people didn't want to hear it. He lifted up the poor and gave his voice to the marginalized.
Today I am asking: how can God more effectively use the voice I have been given?
Unlike King, I still have breath in my lungs. I can still speak words of hope and grace. I can still speak up for those who are often silenced.
This is the day you and I have been given. How will we use it for Jesus’ glory?
You may not know that King came close to dying in 1958. He was in New York City signing copies of his book Stride Toward Freedom when a well-dressed woman jumped the line and thrust a letter opener several inches into King’s sternum. King didn’t panic, but the wound was extremely serious.
The immediate issue was whether to remove the blade sticking out of King's chest before he was taken to the hospital. It was decided to leave it in until the doctors could remove it. That decision may have saved King’s life.
When he got to the hospital, the surgeons quickly realized the letter opener was so close to King’s aorta that simply pulling it out of the existing hole wasn’t an option. Instead, they removed two of his ribs and part of his breast plate to slide the blade out.
After the procedure, one of the doctors described just how close a call King had experienced. “Had Dr. King sneezed or coughed, the weapon would have penetrated the aorta. He was just a sneeze away from death,” he said.
King said in the days after the incident, “I can say, in all sincerity, that I bear no bitterness toward her and I have felt no resentment from the sad moment that the experience occurred,”
On April 3, 1968, the day before his assassination, King delivered what would be his last speech ever in Memphis, Tennessee. In it, he offered a list of civil rights events he would have missed if he had sneezed. “I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze,” he said.
God has preserved your life until this point, too. How will you use the days God has given you? What will you do with this day God has given you?
May God bless you on this holiday as we reflect on the legacy, gospel, and enduring voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. And may God stir us all to use what we have been given today, for God’s glory.