Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Brilliant Oratory of Martin Luther King Jr.

  The Life of Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist minister and civil rights leader during the 1950s and 1960s. He was instrumental in the civil rights movement to bring about transformation in race relations and to abolish the practice of segregation in the United States.  Martin Luther King Jr. did many great deeds in his lifetime before his death in 1968, but perhaps the greatest impact he had was through his powerful speeches and sermons.  We will examine several of his speeches and sermons and consider the impact of his words on modern Christianity then and today.

Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Altanta, Georgia on January 15th 1929 (Lewis & Carson, 2020).

King grew up in a relatively wealthy middle-class family (Lewis & Carson, 2020). His father was pastor of a prominent church in Atlanta (Lewis & Carson, 2020).  Though he did find himself impacted by prejudice, even as a young child, when a white neighbor child’s parents refused to allow their child to spent time with the young King (Lewis & Carson, 2020).  His father and his grandmother were very influential in his early upbringing (Lewis & Carson, 2020). At age 15 King began an early college program at Morehouse College in Atlanta (Lewis & Carson, 2020). He graduated from Morehouse in 1948 (Lewis & Carson, 2020). King studied ministry at Crozer Theological Seminary and later at Boston University (Lewis & Carson, 2020). While in Boston King met Coretta Scott and they got married, later having four children (Lewis & Carson, 2020).  

In 1955 King was pastor of a Baptist church in Montgomery, Alabama and took leadership of an initiative to fight back against racial segregation on the bus system in Montgomery (Lewis & Carson, 2020). This occurred after the incident in which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger, and was arrested (Lewis & Carson, 2020).  King organized a boycott and a little over a year later the bus system was desegregated (Lewis & Carson, 2020).  

King developed a new organization, the Southern Christian Leadership conference (Lewis & Carson, 2020). King began traveling the country preaching and speaking about race relations and prejudice and injustice in the nation (Lewis & Carson, 2020). He had the opportunity to spend time with Gandhi in 1959 and became increasingly convinced that non-violent resistance was the best course of action for the movement developing around him (Lewis & Carson, 2020).

In 1963 King was leading a movement for desegregation of lunch counters and hiring practices in Birmingham, Alabama when police in the area turned fire hoses and dogs against the protesters, arresting several hundred including Martin Luther King Jr (Lewis & Carson, 2020).  He was imprisoned and there he wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (Lewis & Carson, 2020).  

In late 1963, MLK Jr. joined with other civil rights leaders to organize the March on Washington, and under the Lincoln memorial King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech to over 200,000 in attendance (Lewis & Carson, 2020). These events led to a mass movement and change in the nation, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed into law (Lewis & Carson, 2020). At the end of 1964 MLK Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (Lewis & Carson, 2020).

King desired to launch another march on Washington event but was strongly discouraged from doing so by government officials (Lewis & Carson, 2020).  Nevertheless, he led a march of protesters, black and white, in Selma, coming to a bridge where police were arrayed to stop them (Lewis & Carson, 2020). In a stunning turn, King fell on his knees and prayed, along with those gathered in the protest, and then turned and retreated from the scene (Lewis & Carson, 2020).  But the public was once again roused and in 1965 the Voting Rights Act was passed into law (Lewis & Carson, 2020).

But another movement was coming about that did not favor King’s non-violent peaceable approach to racial justice (Lewis & Carson, 2020).  Rioting occurred in the Watts district of Los Angels in August of 1965 (Lewis & Carson, 2020). King responded to growing discontent in urban areas due to discrimination by leading a campaign in Chicago to push back against unjust segregation policies in housing (Lewis & Carson, 2020). The peaceful demonstrations resulted in an agreement between justice activists and city officials that did little to bring about change in the community (Lewis & Carson, 2020). Increasingly younger black-power activists were challenging Dr. King and publicly decrying his cautious approaches to racial justice (Lewis & Carson, 2020). Malcom X even called Dr. King’s approach of non-violence in the face of violence as “criminal” (Lewis & Carson, 2020). Malcom X believed anyone under attack should defend themselves and strike back with violence (Lewis & Carson, 2020).

Martin Luther King Jr. began to broaden his approach to social issues, dealing with wider topics, such as the Vietnam War and national poverty (Lewis & Carson, 2020).  King devoted himself to speaking out consistently against the Vietnam War which he considered to be an immoral war (Lewis & Carson, 2020).  And he began to take on poverty not just for people of color, but for all races, attempting to gather a union of various impoverished individuals from all races to bring about social change (Lewis & Carson, 2020). In 1968 King was planning a Poor People’s March to Washington, but these efforts were interrupted when King decided to join in a city sanitation worker’s strike in Memphis, Tennessee (Lewis & Carson, 2020). King gave his last public message at the Mason Temple Church in Memphis, seeming to prophetically point to his passing, when he indicated that he had “seen the promised land” (Lewis & Carson, 2020).  And the next day, April 4th of 1968, while King was standing on the second-story balcony of the Lorraine Motel, King was killed by a sniper’s bullet (Lewis & Carson, 2020). His death sparked protests and civil disturbances in over 100 cities in the United States (Lewis & Carson, 2020). But his legacy would live on in a nation roused to the concerns of racial justice, and the various pieces of legislation produced on the local, state, and federal levels to deal with systemic injustice.

When discussing the life of Martin Luther King Jr. it’s important to note that King was not a perfect individual. There are numerous reports of sexual misconduct, and repeated affairs from FBI surveillance records of his activities over the years of his civil rights campaigns (Greenberg, White, Sitrin, & Gerstein, 2019). It was reported that he was involved in group sexual activity (Greenberg, White, Sitrin, & Gerstein, 2019). And one particularly disturbing incident records that a fellow pastor, Logan Kearse held down a woman and raped her, while King laughed, and offered advice as it happened (Greenberg, White, Sitrin, & Gerstein, 2019). These revelations came out with reports from the FBI, who were monitoring King, which were made public due to Freedom of Information Act requests (Greenberg, White, Sitrin, & Gerstein, 2019). It was also revealed that King had continued to take money from his friend Stanley Levison, a Communist Party member, though he had claimed he had broken ties with him (Greenberg, White, Sitrin, & Gerstein, 2019).  Though many of these revelations have only come in the last twenty years some of this was known much sooner, such as in 1989 when Ralph Abernathy, one of King’s close associates revealed that King spent the night before his murder with his mistress (Greenberg, White, Sitrin, & Gerstein, 2019). Though Martin Luther King Jr. clearly had some serious faults, these faults should be considered in light of all he accomplished for racial justice, unity, non-violence, and race relations in the United States in his life.

The Speeches, Letters, and Sermons of Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr’s brilliance was of course largely found in his organizing and action to fight against the evils of segregation and prejudice. He was able to mobilize a huge movement to overturn unjust laws on the local, state, and federal level. But behind that power of organizing and action was the incredible power of King’s spoken and written word.  King spoke in a way that inspired others. He spoke moral truth in spiritual terms. He spoke in terms of justice and injustice. He spoke in terms of hopes, dreams, equality, and unity.  Let us consider some of his famous and not-so-famous messages, and how they poured forth a fundamentally Christian message that helped change the world.  King managed to organize, empower, and guide the people who gathered under him, galvanizing a massive movement as they waged a desperate fight for justice.

Let’s consider one of his earliest recorded sermons from a message he gave at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church titled “Loving Your Enemies.” King spoke of the command of Jesus to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. King (1957) said, “…far from being an impractical idealist, Jesus has become the practical realist. The words of this text glitter in our eyes with a new urgency. Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, this command is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies.”

King managed to breathlessly take a biblical truth of loving enemies, and helped his people understand that this command must apply practically to the real world.  But King then indicates that the first step in loving one’s enemies is looking inwardly, through self-examination. He said we must then look at the person who hates us, and try to see the good in them, because some good exists in everyone. He said you should see the “Image of God” in that person, and you can love them despite their own hatred for you. King says then you will inevitably be faced with a situation where you will have an opportunity to defeat that person. But you must not do it. You must not defeat them. You must let them win.  King (1957) continues by indicating, “That is the meaning of love. In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It’s not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.”

In this message we see the incredibly brilliant yet paradoxical way in which King achieved victory where so many had been defeated. King’s ethic of love was so incredibly powerful it overcame hatred by being overcome by it. Rosa Parks simply sat in her place and refused to move.  She hated none of them. She wasn’t rude. She didn’t throw bricks or burn down city blocks.  She loved her enemies and simply fought through dogged determined love.  It was the same at the segregated kitchens, where activists simply sat, and refused to leave.  They weren’t rude, they didn’t riot or destroy, they politely sat and refused to be moved.  They were beaten, had drinks thrown on them, they were spit on, and slapped, but they refused to strike back.  Looking from the outside, it looked like defeat. But actually, in the love of Christ, it was victory.  Their dogged, dignified, loving resilience was so powerful a public display of love surrendered to hatred, that hatred died out, and love replaced it.  Defeat became victory.  Laws were changed. Hearts were changed. Segregation was defeated, and people’s hearts were changed to see people of color as equals, as brothers and sisters in Christ.  All of this came about due to this radical idea of love by Martin Luther King Jr.  He fought the system but loved the person.

Next, we consider the 1963 letter that King wrote from the Birmingham Jail. King wrote a rousing letter to the clergy of the area that would live on in history.  He wrote that he had come to the area as a prophet does to declare “thus saith the Lord” and that he had come like the Apostle Paul came, to spread the good news of freedom (King, 1963, p. 13).  He had come from Altanta to Birmingham because, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (King 1963, p. 14). The pastors of Birmingham were upset and had written a public statement decrying the protests in the area.  But King wrote to them in response to that, “It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative” (King, 1963, p. 14). Birmingham at that time in history was regarded as the single most segregated city in the entire country. There were regular bombings of black churches and homes. Negotiations with the city had led to little change. So King believed only non-violent protest could bring about real change.

In the letter King called the church leaders to rally their congregations to be salt and light to the world around them. 

He wrote, “There was a time when the church was very powerful --in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators." But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.”

In a time when the church had fallen away from the radical approaches of the Reformation era and into general concord with modernism and patriotic society, King once again called the church to remember who they were, not ones to be folded into modernity, but those to stand against injustice and transform society from within. He knew how much the church had grown to dislike any criticism, and how quickly the church would fold to outside influences, and instead King challenges the church to stand firm in the face of criticism and public backlash to end injustice, just like they had ended child sacrifice, and gladiatorial death matches.

We would be remised if we did not consider the incredible world-shaking message King gave in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, famously known as the “I Have a Dream” Speech. King (1963) said, “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity..But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”
King powerfully portrayed the history of slavery and how those chains were symbolically broken by Lincoln with the Emancipation Proclamation, but nevertheless people of color were still shackled by segregation.  He painted the picture of a people still caught up in exile, as if they were a people freed from Egypt but only condemned to wander in the wilderness, just as Israel once did.  King spoke in biblical terms, but in clear reference to history and present conditions, inspiring the people around him to see deeper themes in the world around them.  King indicated in his speech to the nation, that there would not be tranquility or rest in the United States until all people in the country had been granted their rights as citizens (King, 1963).  He challenged the system and clearly tells the country that they will not be pushed aside from this struggle.

But then King addresses his own people, declaring the highest standard for the movement he leads, stating, “But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”

This goes to the incredible genius of King. He knew there was a reasonable danger that the movement he led could degenerate into violence, riots, and destruction. There was much legitimate anger and rage out there for the systems and people who were oppressing his people.  Yet he calls his people to a higher standard, the standard of loving their enemies while stoically standing up to the system, refusing to be moved.  He called his people to fight not with destruction but with dignity, drinking heartily from the cup of bitterness, that same cup that Jesus drank from when was crucified. And like Jesus, King knew they would paradoxically win the victory from defeat.

King (1963) continued, “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.” He knew there was a danger that people of color could begin to consider all white people as evil, racist, and suspect. But he urged against such a response, urging instead for his people to unite with whites in brotherhood and love.

King knew that many of the people at the rally that day had endured years of oppression, and years of peaceful protest and non-violence that had yielded little fruit. Yet King saw great hope, where many others would’ve only found despair and hopelessness.  He said, “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. And 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."”

In the post-modern era many seek to fight injustice by tearing down the entire system, and replacing it with something else.  Many fight the system by seeking to destroy it completely.  King did not fight in such a way.  He saw great hope for people of color in the American dream.  He saw hope in the original creed of the country, that all men are created equal. He saw a day when white men of Georgia, and the children of freed slaves would sit down together in brotherhood (King, 1963, p. 25).  King saw a day when Mississippi would be a place of freedom and equality.  He saw hope for a country unified in diversity (King, 1963).

King (1963) 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.” He dreamed of a time when people would not be obsessed with skin color but would be more concerned with the individual and their character. He called his people to hope and faith.  Faith that God would guide them to win the battle against prejudice and segregation. 

King (1963) said, “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”

King painted a picture of hope, faith, and love in the hearts of his people.  He didn’t speak about how terrible whiteness was.  He spoke of hope, of brotherhood, and of faith working itself out through action against injustice, and the trusting knowledge that unity would win the day.

In conclusion, King (1963) said, “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! God Almighty, we are free at last!”

He knew that all the divisions within the society needed to be replaced with a brotherhood of love and unity. He saw that when blacks or Jews or Catholics or Protestants weren’t free, it meant no one was free. But he saw the day when the country would be united, and all would gather together to declare freedom at last.  King mobilized the English language and sent it into battle, just like men and women before him had done, who needed to galvanize and strengthen a movement toward acts of creative justice done in love. King and his followers drank repeatedly from the bitter cup of injustice’s wrath, and paradoxically as a result, they won the day, ending segregation, and enshrining in law equal rights for people of color in the country.  And they inspired millions of whites to begin to see people of color as equals, as brothers and sisters in common cause for liberty and justice. 

In King’s last message in 1968 at a Memphis church, he wrote, “Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. 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 a people will get to the promised land. And 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.” 

King seemed to prophetically see his own end was coming soon.  He perceived the future that one day his people would be truly free. But he knew he would never see it. He knew his time was quickly coming to an end.  But he saw the glory of the Lord.  He saw hope in the future.  And he taught the dream of hope to his people, through the power of his spoken word.  And fundamentally, King spoke a Christian message. The message he spoke was deeply rooted in biblical Christian fundamentals like self-sacrificial love, non-violence, resistance to evil, and victory through seeming defeat. But more importantly King put that Christian message into practical action.  He managed to translation the Christian truth of Jesus Christ into real action in the world.  And this translation of biblical truth into the modern era managed to change the country and change the world. He brought justice through painting biblical truth into the real world, through his words and his actions, replicated in his followers.  And through love’s defeat, paradoxically, defeat turned into victory because of God’s hand in those events.


Greenberg, D., White, J. B., Sitrin, S. S., & Gerstein, B. M. (2019, June 04). How to Make Sense of the Shocking New MLK Documents. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2019/06/04/how-to-make-sense-of-the-shocking-new-mlk-documents-227042

King, M. L., Jr. (n.d.). Dr. King's Last Sermon. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from https://www.ucc.org/sacred-conversation_dr-kings-last-sermon

King, M. L., Jr. (1957-1968). Eleven Speeches by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from http://wmasd.ss7.sharpschool.com/common/pages/UserFile.aspx?fileId=8373388

King, M. L., Jr. (2018, April 04). "I've Been to the Mountaintop". Retrieved November 17, 2020, from https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/ive-been-mountaintop

Lewis, D. L., & Carson, C. (2020, July 27). Martin Luther King, Jr. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Martin-Luther-King-Jr

Martin Luther King Jr. (2020, October 29). Retrieved November 17, 2020, from https://www.biography.com/activist/martin-luther-king-jr