It was only 13 months earlier – in December 1955, that Rosa Parks was arrested in Alabama for refusing to give up her seat at the front of the bus for a white man. A boycott was organized, and King was anointed the leader of it, despite his initial lukewarm interest in being involved. African Americans were urged to boycott the segregated city buses, and the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was formed. The boycott lasted over a year, until the bus company capitulated. Segregated seating was discontinued, and some African Americans were employed as bus drivers. When the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that the bus segregation laws of Montgomery were unconstitutional, the boycott ended in triumph for black dignity. Martin Luther King had become a national hero and an acknowledged leader in the civil rights struggle.
But the victory had not come without cost. With increased visibility came increased hostility. Now, on this night in January of 1956, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was exhausted. His wife Coretta had already fallen asleep, and King looked forward to shortly joining her. He checked on his two-month old daughter Coretta, whom they affectionately nicknamed “Yoki,” and she too was peacefully asleep.
Suddenly the phone rang. King grimaced, suspecting that he knew what awaited him if he chose to answer. For most people a middle of the night phone call would be unusual, but for the King family it was becoming too common. Threatening phone calls had become a daily routine in the weeks of the recent protests, and King had tried to brush them off at first. In recent days, however, the phone calls had started to take a toll, increasing in number to thirty or forty a day and growing in their menacing intent He feared this would be just another mean spirited threat.
Afraid that the ringing would wake his family, King reluctantly answered. The voice on the other end was as hateful as he feared. One hateful insult was thrown at him after another, as the anonymous caller clearly wanted to tear apart Dr. King’s confidence. Once the long list of insults was finished, the caller ended the threat with a nasty finale. King was told that if he and his family didn’t leave Montgomery immediately, they wouldn’t live to see the end of the week.
Dr. King hung up without comment, as he had begun to do when receiving one of these disturbing calls. He had been able to ignore these calls for the most part, but something about this one cut all the way to the bone. Maybe it was the hatred that oozed from the words of this particular threat. Maybe it was exhaustion. Maybe it was the sheer number of threats he was receiving.
He tried to calm himself down and got into bed. But as he lay there under the sheets, anxiety began to take hold of him. He began to think of his precious daughter and her “little gentle smile.” He began to think of his beautiful wife who had sacrificed her music career so that he could take up leadership in the south. He began to wonder if the risk level was getting too high, and feared that he might be putting his precious family in harm’s way. What if they were taken away from him? Or more likely, what if he was taken from them?
The anxiety became overwhelming, and Dr. King realized he was not going to be able to fall asleep. He went out and made a pot of coffee and sat at the kitchen table, hoping to calm himself down. But he couldn’t take control of the rushing tide of fear taking over him.
As the fear intensified that night, Dr. King began to entertain thoughts of resigning his post and stepping back from this important but dangerous mission. He began to develop an exit strategy, in hopes that he could figure out “a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward.” Sitting at the kitchen table sipping the coffee, King’s thoughts were interrupted by a sudden notion that at once intensified his desperation and clarified his options.
“Something said to me, ‘You can’t call on Daddy now, you can’t call on Mama. You’ve got to call on that something in that person that your daddy used to tell you about, that power that can make a way out of no way.’”
Prayer was not unfamiliar to Dr. King. He had, after all, grown up the son of a preacher. But there are different kinds of prayers. There is the pedestrian type, where we pray sweet little prayers like, “Now I lay my head to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” And then there are PRAYERS – the type of prayers where we remember we are mere mortals who control almost nothing, and we NEED the power of God to show up in might ways. This is the type of prayer Dr. King was about to engage in. He prayed:
“Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I still think I’m right. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now, I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. Now, I am afraid. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
King just sat there, alone in his thoughts. He had told God everything that was on his mind. Now it was time to listen. This is what he heard God tell him:
“Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for the truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world.”
I have reflected on this journal entry from Dr. King many times. It is short and sweet, yet filled with power and meaning. My guess is that most of us would hear something like this if we really heard the voice of God. As Dr. King reflected on this, he wrote this reflection in his journal:
“I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone… I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before… Almost at once my fears began to go… My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”
I am infinitely glad that Dr. King met Jesus that night. How much further behind would we be without his life and legacy?
But as much as I admire and honor Dr. King – and i think its important we do – it reminds me that we should not stop there.
The writer of Hebrews is the most prolific author in the Bible on faith, and Hebrews 11 &12 is a tapestry of men and women of faith through the annals of history that comprise the “cloud of witnesses” that now cheer us on to do the same. Just in case we were tempted to get too busy admiring these heroes of faith instead of emulating them, the writer of Hebrews gives us this admonition:
“Remember your leaders… Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13.7-8)
This verse is profound to me. First, we remember that Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. That verse is cited often, but the context brings additional meaning to it. The Jesus who came near to Dr. King on January 27, 1956 is the same Jesus that came near to the Apostle Paul and walked with the 12 disciples. Its the same Jesus that each of the pillars of faith from Hebrews 11 were united to God through. And its the same Jesus that is near to you and I.
Jesus is doing the same thing now that he has always been doing. He is working for righteousness and justice, truth and peace. Jesus is touching and healing; renewing and restoring.
When we see someone like Dr. King that met Jesus and changed the world because of it – we should admire and honor their legacy. But we should stop there – to do so ultimately dishonors them. We are not just meant to celebrate or admire – we are to “imitate their faith.”
For after all Jesus – the same Jesus that Dr. King knew – is the same yesterday, today, and forever