MLK’s Most Powerful Words
Happy Friday, everyone! Today we wrap up a little four-part series on race. Pastor John, you have been talking about race in America for the last fifty years. Often, you speak with serious appreciation and admiration for Martin Luther King Jr. Is there anything that stands out to you above others as what moved you most about this man’s life?
Yes. What I want to do, Tony, is just let the listener hear King say what for me was the most moving thing he ever said or wrote. A lot of people think the most moving thing he ever said was the “I Have a Dream” speech on the Washington Mall. That was powerful, and it is famous. But it was not the most moving thing for this sinner, this racist sinner of the 1950s and 60s. It is not the most powerful thing he ever said.
The most powerful thing he ever wrote was this paragraph from “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I will read it. He wrote this on April 16, 1963, while he was in jail and accused of being precipitous and impatient in making demands in a peaceful, non-violent way. If you were like me and grew up during this time, this would probably have had the same effect on you that it did on me, and maybe it will. This is what he said:
Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the sting of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your 6-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a 5-year-old son who is asking, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day-in and day-out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are), your last name becomes “John,” and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro living constantly at tip-toe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are ever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobody-ness”; then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
That kind of writing landed on me late — very late, not when it needed to. But after it did, my sense of the historic significance of Martin Luther King has never gone down. It is really quite a matter of indifference whether King was a biblical evangelical or whether he was morally upright. The issue here is this: Did he rescue America from two things? First, from the injustices that he just described (with painful accuracy, according to my life and experience). Second, from a conflagration. Had another strategy — violence — been pursued, it would have caused this country to go up in flames, a kind of second Civil War.
I really do believe God used him to rescue us on both counts. In other words, the civil rights successes were largely owing to his voice, and a worse kind of reaction through violence was prevented. I would encourage people to get a copy of “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and read the whole thing. If that was as moving to them as it is to me, then my guess is the whole thing could be life-changing.