Martin Luther King Jr. – Spiritual Genius

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountain top, I won’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long time. 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 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!”

I’m sure this is not the first time you’ve heard the stirring speech Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the night before he died. Comparing himself to Moses in the Bible, King felt he would be denied entrance to the world of racial harmony and social justice that he had devoted his life to creating. But though he wasn’t allowed to enter the Promised Land, he didn’t express any bitterness about that fact – and I don’t believe he felt any.

I believe Martin Luther King, Jr. really did feel unworthy to take part in the completion of his dream. For many years, he had taken upon himself an almost impossible role. He was the leader of one of history’s great transformations – following in the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi in India and laying the foundation for Nelson Mandela in South Africa. Yet he was not a perfect human being. He was not morally impeccable. He knew he was not at the top of the spiritual ladder. Yet he accepted the challenge of striving to be what people needed, though he knew that wasn’t always who he was.

During the 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a target for enemies both inside and outside the US government. He was threatened by racist enemies ranging from the Ku Klux Klan to radical African American organizations – and he was the subject of an unrelenting surveillance effort by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. He was accused of Communist sympathies, financial improprieties and personal misconduct. At the same time, he subjected himself to even more intense scrutiny. Was he really worthy of leading a massive movement for social change? Was he the perfect symbol that such a movement demanded? Was he someone who could survive under the microscope he was put under by the world and by himself as well?

The answers that King gave to those questions may not always have been in the affirmative, though he never shirked the leadership role he had taken upon himself. But there was a degree of inner tension – a pulling in two directions of the spiritual ladder – that led him to believe he would suffer a martyr’s death – and perhaps to accept that destiny as well. As he said, “Certainly I don’t want to die. But if anyone has to die, let it be me.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. As a child he loved both reading and public speaking and he enjoyed watching his minister father deliver weekly sermons. When he entered Morehouse College in Atlanta at the age of 16, King was considering a career in medicine, law, or teaching and he majored in sociology. But in his junior year, he decided he would enter the ministry like his father. On the subject of education, he once wrote, “Its function is teaching us to think intensively and critically. But education that stops at that point may prove a great menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason but deprived of morality.”

After graduating from Morehouse College in 1948, King entered a theological seminary. While there, he attended a lecture on the Indian pacifist leader Mahatma Gandhi. That lecture set the direction of King’s life. “The message was so profound and electrifying,” he said, “that I immediately left the meeting and bought a half dozen books on Gandhi.”

King graduated from the seminary and entered Boston University as a doctoral student. He received his degree in 1955, and then became pastor of a church in Montgomery, Alabama. There he joined the supporters of Rosa Parks, a black woman who had been arrested in Montgomery for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person.

On January 14, 1957, King’s home and his church in Montgomery were bombed during a campaign of violence against black activists. After this bombing, King began to sense that he might someday have to die for the cause he had chosen. Like anyone else, there were times when he found this very difficult to accept – but he also worried about what he regarded as inadequacy for the destiny that God had given him.

Though he himself was a nonviolent person, King was surrounded by violence and by allies who preached violence on his part. In Harlem, he was stabbed while autographing copies of his book, Stride Toward Freedom. He was frequently jailed, but he regarded this as a way of expressing his willingness to suffer and sacrifice for the common good. “Nonviolence may mean going to jail,” he said. “If such is the case, the resister must be willing to fill the jail houses of the South. It may even mean physical death. But if physical death is the price a man must pay to free his children and his white brethren from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing could be more important.”

King’s life was filled with confrontations. He was always ready to rush to a city or a scene where he could help demonstrate the power of nonviolence. He was the most watched civil rights leader of the time and the one from whom the most was expected. Again and again, he used stirring oratory to insist on nonviolence, “If you don’t go,” he said of one proposed march, “don’t hinder me! We will march nonviolently. We shall force this nation, this city, this world, to face its own conscience. We will make the God of love in the white man triumph over the Satan of segregation that is in him. The struggle is not between black and white, but between good and evil.”

Gradually his language began to grow more visionary. At the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington in 1963, he spoke the words for which he is best remembered, “….I have a dream that my four little children will not be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character…. Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

In 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest recipient ever. In the next few years, he led marches and protests all across the country, from Selma, Alabama to Chicago, Illinois. His efforts were not always successful and at times even his closest friends began to feel that King was becoming so visionary as to be ineffective. His wife, Coretta Scott King, once said, “My husband was what psychologists call a guilt-ridden man. He was so conscious of his awesome responsibilities that he literally set himself the task of never making an error in the affairs of the Movement.” In the spring of 1968, King was in Memphis to support a strike by garbage workers. He had once said, “If a man hasn’t found something he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on the balcony outside his motel room.

But while King was assassinated, his movement lives on; its resonance hasn’t lost its meaning. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s genius transcends his lifetime to continue to affect his movement decades later.

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