The year was 1989, and I was a freshman in high school. I was sitting at a lone desk in an empty hallway because, once again, my behavior had gotten me kicked out of class—but on purpose, actually. Because though I was attending one of the best prep schools in New Jersey and in all honors classes, occasionally, when the learning material couldn’t quite hold my attention, I’d goof around until I was asked to take my desk into the hallway. And what would I do once in the hallway? I’d eagerly pull out Strength To Love, by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Since middle school, Dr. King was always my favorite, reading away and even re-reading the heavier content until I got it. Dr. King was a pure scholar.
“My friends, we cannot win the respect of the White people of the South or elsewhere if we are willing to trade the future of our children for our personal safety or comfort. Moreover, we must learn that passively to accept an unjust system is to cooperate with that system, and thereby become a participant in its evil... Put up thy sword.” — Strength To Love, 1963
This book I always carried with me was actually an original paperback that had belonged to my father during his executive administrative position at Seton Hall University. He had emulated the steps of Dr. King and became a leader in the civil rights struggle in New Jersey, implementing scholarship programs and graduate programs for people of color, which are still active until this very day. But not before he first endured growing up in poverty in the Deep South of the 1950s. He attended segregated schooling throughout high school, where his hungry mind always had to wait until the white schools finished sucking the abridged life out of every textbook before his school could finally get them. Even after earning valedictorian at his school, his physics teacher gave him a failing grade on a perfect paper. When my dad asked why, the teacher told him, “I didn’t give you an ‘A’ on that paper because you said you wanted to be a nuclear physicist, and a colored person has no business being a nuclear physicist.”
On this day when Dr. King’s birthday is nationally honored (his actual birthday being January 15), what does he mean to me?
As far back as I can remember, and even before his birthday became a national holiday in 1986, an integral part of our northern urban culture was to ecstatically celebrate Dr. King’s birthday—even if it just meant turning up Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday to Ya,” extra loud on Mom’s clock radio as we’d get ready for school that morning.
Also, as far back as I can remember, whenever Dr. King’s name was mentioned, the emphasis on the title “doctor” was always sacred, as to just say his name would seemingly usher in a hush of honor and dignity as everyone would seem to hold their heads a bit higher for a second. While others called him by his full name without the title, we remembered him as a man who overcame all obstacles to earn his Ph.D., a rarity for countless black folks in those times. He was beloved in our community: He was like everyone’s unofficial favorite grandfather, father, godfather, uncle or son. A man, who for the sake of fighting for the freedoms of the oppressed, didn’t fear violent fists, fire hoses, bone-bruising batons, handcuffs, prison cells, police dogs trained to go berserk whenever they saw brown skin, or even death itself.
I grew up in a home with a humanistic worldview, attending Catholic church only on the important holidays, so I had a vague familiarity with Jesus. But I remember reading Dr. King’s references to Jesus Christ, Christ’s Sermon on the Mount and Christ’s commandment to forgive and turn the other cheek, and then getting to observe how Dr. King actually lived it out. He was the first person to make Jesus’ life and teachings relevant and powerful to me. Long before I was anywhere close to believing the Gospel and giving my heart to Christ, Dr. King showed this once-young, curious “searching” teenager—growing up on the drug-dealing streets of inner-city New Jersey, while at the same time, going to a wealthy prep school where I had my own countless bouts with both blatant and covert forms of racism—that Jesus was real and that Jesus’ teachings were still relevant in modern times and for modern issues.
Fast forward now: I matriculated at the “Ivy League” halls of the University of Pennsylvania, and though I was a pre-med student, I began learning much more about the world around me.
As an African-American Studies minor, I studied other prominent black leaders who had ideologies quite different from those of Dr. King’s.
I attended various lectures and even sat at the feet of people like Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Movement (along with Huey P. Newton). I read Malcolm X and others who critiqued Dr. King’s methods. But to me, Dr. King remained bulletproof from the blaze of any critic; his message of reconciliation was simple and powerful and grounded in the love taught by Christ.
Fast forward, yet again, to when I hadn’t read Dr. King in years, by this point, when I was my senior year at Penn and busy navigating and (seemingly barely) surviving my own personal Ecclesiastes, like the spiritually-wearied King Solomon—suddenly finding everything around me to feel like “vanity” and “chasing wind” when it came to finding “true fulfillment”—and thereby, leading me to discover the regenerating Gospel of Jesus Christ as the true summum bonum (i.e., “greatest good”) for all of mankind. Oh, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, t’was blind but now, I see.”
As I graduated from Penn and began devouring the Word of God and growing in a (heavy) Bible-teaching church community, I was learning to “rightly divide the word of God” and even hold up the teachings of others against the Word of God—just as Jesus instructs His followers to do (I Thessalonians 5:21; Psalm 138:2). And it was at this point that I learned the difference between good or “sound” theology, bad theology and even “slightly off” theology.
I began learning more about Gospel-centered ministry, and how when Jesus spoke of giving a (refreshing) cup of water to even a child in His name, that even that wouldn’t go unrewarded by Him—and how some are indeed giving the (refreshing) cup of cold water “in His name” (i.e., while sharing the soul-saving “Good News” message of Jesus Christ, while countless others—all in the name of “Christian ministry”—all too often end up compromising with a “Social Gospel,” which still gives the (refreshing) cup of cold water and meets the pressing need(s) at hand, only they neglect doing it “in His name,” as the final element of Jesus’ command.
Thus, as a Bible-lensed believer, I had to now look at Dr. King, my first “superhero,” my first scholar whom I read in empty “naughty” hallways, after getting kicked out of class, the man who greatly inspired my own (hero) father, the man who still made my mom get teary-eyed when she found a rare book by him to gift to me, the man who first made Jesus real to me... I had to look at him through the lenses of “rightly divided” Scripture. And having a close friend who worked directly with Dr. King’s children at the King Foundation in Atlanta, Georgia, I even got access to hundreds of pages of King’s never-released essays, including essays from his younger days attending a liberal seminary, where he even questioned the Word of God’s supreme, inerrant theology, while trying to amalgamate the biblical worldview with ancient Egyptian belief systems. Add to that the pressing questions you hear voiced here and there:
Was Dr. King a socialist or communist? Was he an adulterer? Did he fall victim to Jesus’ warnings concerning “the leaven of Herod,” falling into the trap of mingling humanistic political might with unadulterated Gospel hope? There was so much to think about, but I had to be reminded of one thing: Whenever we are confronted with uncertainties or unanswered questions surrounding a person, we tend to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” At the heart of observing others, will always remain the ongoing struggle of reconciling the imperfections of the person, with the redeemable parts and lessons of the message and the overall work.
So what do we do with all of this, and as (rhetorically) stated in the title of Dr. King’s last book he wrote, Where Do We Go From Here? I have come to the conclusion that we owe Dr. King the same grace we’ve extended to King David, King Uzziah, Peter & the other disciples, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his reported involvement in two assassination attempts on Hitler, C.S. Lewis and his non-biblical belief in Purgatory, and countless others. In fact, it is the very same grace we pray to God for concerning our own personal lives every day. The Bible clearly instructs us to “mark the steps of a righteous man (Psalm 37:37),” to call sin for what it is, and to learn from those around us (and those in history), which also included learning from their mistakes, lest we easily slip and fall in (any and all similar) places ourselves (I Corinthians 10:12). Yes, the Word of God is supreme and is to be our guide in all things, but in doing so, love will always remain the “most excellent way” in doing so.
Most of all, here is my biggest question concerning Dr. King: Will I see my hero in heaven?
You know, I’ve read so much written by Dr. King and about Dr. King, that it gets confusing as to where I have read what at times. However, what stands out the most of all that I’ve ever read was an obscure essay he once wrote about the night back when he was leading his first bus boycott for the desegregation of buses in Montgomery, Alabama, and in retaliation, someone shot up his house, leaving bullet holes in the very sanctuary where his wife and kids found refuge.
He proceeded to write of how he sat alone that night in his kitchen—already a husband, father, up-and-coming national civil rights leader, and even a Baptist minister—and shaken to his core by what had happened to his home, he asked himself if he had truly experienced a (spiritually) born again experience in making Jesus Christ his personal Lord and Savior. And not sure of his own answer to that question, but wanting to make sure he was truly “in Christ” and not just deceivingly a mere part of “Churchianity” and “religious culture,” this pioneering visionary, scholar, courageous commander and religious man who emulated Jesus Christ, actually lowered his head and invited the risen Christ into His heart as his personal Lord and Savior for the remission of sins.
I’ve heard many wonder if King Solomon will be in heaven simply because of his severe backsliding (which led him to worship in very demonic ways). But based on his conclusion in Ecclesiastes, I believe King Solomon is in glory.
And I cannot prove it (for who knows the heart but God (I Corinthians 4:5), I believe my hero Dr. King is in glory as well.
In closing, what should be our practical take away and application concerning the legacy of Dr. King?
In this racially-polarized day, when so many (even in the Church) refuse to have the necessary, ongoing, tough conversations concerning race, and when we must be ready to (lovingly) challenge others (and even challenge ourselves at times), let us remember how Dr. King seemed to never grow weary in “leaning into discomfort” for the love of others. In a day when the Church has grossly confused merely knowing with actually doing something with what you know, let us remember how Dr. King’s entire life was a living sermon on how talk is cheap. More so, in a day, when Christians sometimes can’t even garner enough Christian humility to apologize to their next-door neighbors for the slightest offenses, Dr. King made Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness and “turning the other cheek” look supernatural, to say the least.
In a day when Christians can’t even embrace a brother or sister who adheres to a different style of worship or denominational viewpoint, let us remember how Dr. King was able to embrace Malcolm X with love and honor—even after Malcolm X publicly criticized Dr. King and regularly alluded to Dr. King not being “strong enough.” Most of all, in a day when we struggle with sacrificing for anything we deem “too costly,” in Dr. King we see a man who sacrificed even unto death—even (seemingly) prophesying about his imminent death in a message delivered some 24 hours before he was assassinated. In it, he declared that he still wasn’t going to stop and wasn’t concerned with such because he had received a fresh vision of His Lord Jesus Christ, and that He would one day be returning to Earth to reign as King of kings and Lord of lords.
You know, for so many reasons, I still can’t watch this video clip without tears running down my face. And when I grow up, I still want to be so much like Dr. King, just like I desire to be so much like King David, Abraham, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and so many others who have deeply impacted me for Jesus, in one way or another, even as they all prove that even “the best of men, are but men at best” (A.W. Pink).
So dear reader, let’s keep thinking; let’s keep the necessary conversations going while being more eager to listen than to speak; let’s love one another sacrificially; let’s love our enemies as Jesus commanded us; let’s continue facing this current evil day with relevant Gospel outreaches and spontaneous acts of love, all in our deepest desire to showcase Jesus Christ as man’s only solution for every dilemma—and especially the dilemma of race and America’s ongoing reaping from the ongoing sowing of things that clearly contradict the heart and mind of God concerning how people treat and value one another. Happy Birthday, Dr. King! Salute!
“Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.” — Strength To Love, 1963