Martin Luther King Jr. was a great leader. You cannot deny that, but what made him a great leader? Dr. King led this nation to social reform, but I am convinced that his influence produced something even more profound. He gave an entire people group a sense of dignity and value when the world told them they had none. He accomplished this by telling a different story, a new story different from the one his people had believed for more than a century.
Born in Atlanta on January 15th, 1929, Martin Luther King found himself in the middle of a story saturated with racism and segregation. His mother faced the difficult task of every Southern African-American mother in the 1960s, to explain segregation to her child, but she insisted that this story was fiction, and the truth, she said, was that he was valuable. She taught her son to “feel a sense of ‘somebodiness'” while having to face a world that told him he was “less than.” This story, told by his parents, instilled in Dr. King the vision of a new story and a different world.
In seminary, Dr. King heard the story of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi’s philosophy was profoundly formational in Dr. King’s life and eventual mission. This story melted his skepticism about the power of love, and he saw that love could play a role in social reform. He said that in Gandhi’s emphasis on love and nonviolence he found the method for social reform he had been seeking.
On December 1, 1955, the story of a woman refusing to give her seat up on a bus prepared a people to hear a new story and launched Dr. King’s rise to leadership and influence in the civil rights movement. Mrs. Parks’ action was the catalyst for the bus boycotts of Montgomery, the first major offensive in the fight for civil rights. A mass meeting was called at the end of the first day of boycotts. At this meeting, Dr. King began what he called the most decisive speech of his life with the story of Rosa Parks and reviewing the long history of insults the African-American citizens experienced on the city buses. He preached that they and the whites were not the only characters in the story.
“If we are wrong, God almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to earth. And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
God was a character in this story. He preached that God was on their side, and confidently placed the African-American people in the story of God with an allusion to the day of the Lord and Amos 5:24. That night when Dr. King he knew that they had already won. The outcome was already decided, not because of a boycott or rousing speech, but because thousands of African-Americans stood “with a new sense of dignity and destiny.” Collectively they denied the lie of the old story and accepted the truth of the new story.
The success of the Montgomery bus boycotts and the somebodiness it birthed gave the story great momentum. The action moved to Albany and then to Birmingham, and the story was growing. More and more African-Americans began to believe the story Dr. King was telling, and true to the concept of an organic movement, people rose up all over with a sense of dignity and joined the movement. For the first time African-Americans were uniting across the country against the implicit racism of segregation in the South and the understated, but nonetheless humiliating, inequality of the North. It was a desire to demonstrate this unity that led to the march on Washington and Dr. King’s most famous speech. He stoked the imagination of a nation when he articulated his dream for the conclusion of the story.
“I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day 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.’ I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. 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… And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
I don’t think I would be misrepresenting Dr. King to suggest that his vision was more about his people having a sense of somebodiness than social change. No doubt injustice had to be defeated. Social change was necessary because segregation was an enemy of dignity and value, but more important than the right to eat at the same lunch counter was the right to dignity in one’s life. It is often said the journey is as important as the destination, and I believe that is most certainly true in this story. Perhaps more valuable than the social reforms of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 was the somebodiness embraced by the African-American people in the process.
I am deeply impacted by the frequent battles with fear and bitterness in Dr. King’s story. Over and over he describes being overcome with fear or tempted to give in to bitterness. Whether initiated by attempts to intimidate him, death-threats, attacks on his fellow nonviolent protesters, or broken promises, these threats to the story plagued Dr. King most of his life, and every time he turned to God in prayer.
After one particularly disturbing threat, he described the feeling of all his fears coming down on him at once. He cried out to God, and his response was so vivid that Dr. King could recall his words many years later. “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.” Dr. King believed these words and felt God’s presence as he never had before. The fear melted away and was restored with confidence.
This was a common experience for Dr. King. We tend to deify people like Dr. King by erasing their struggles and making them more than human. Dr. King was an amazing man, but it is important that we remember his humanity. He struggled often, but was so certain that God was on his side that his faith never wavered. He knew that God would give him the balance, guidance, and strength he needed. It is helpful to me to know that even a great man like Dr. King faced struggles with fear and bitterness.
What kind of stories to you believe; what kind of stories do you live in? Are they the right stories? Do you need a new story? When you encounter threats to your story, what do you do? Do you give in or do you cry out to God? As we honor and reflect on a great man today, embrace your somebodiness. Regardless of your race, gender, or age, you are created by God in his image, and that makes you somebody.
(All quotes are from The Autobiography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)