We just heard what we hear every year on the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Replays of his famed “I Have A Dream” speech. Replays of his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech that was delivered, eerily, the day before his murder. From politicians we heard tributes to the civil rights leader’s brilliance, wisdom, and near-superhuman courage.
But what we rarely hear this year or any year is the story King himself told about where he found that courage, in the face of constant death threats, when he was just in his mid-20.
He found it only after he heard Jesus Christ himself calling him by name, King said. He found it only after Jesus Christ himself told him to fight on, King said, and promised to be with him always.
In other words, Martin Luther King said God talked to him.
That’s why we rarely hear mention of King’s so-called “kitchen table conversion,” I suspect. Claiming a pipeline to the beyond is the surest pipeline to irrelevance: People think you’re crazy or a fraud. Claims of “talking to God,” even if the revered Dr. King is staking the claim, make too many of us nervous, uncomfortable, especially some in the secular left who revere King, but squirm at overt religiosity.
Fighting to end discrimination and segregation, to lift up the poor and marginalized — that’s one thing. It’s another thing entirely to say, as King did, that he’d considered giving it all up until a divine intervention convinced him otherwise. It’s evangelicals, typically social conservatives, who talk about such encounters and being “born again,” isn’t it? What’s a secular liberal to do with a King who claimed that, too?
Here’s how King himself in his autobiography described the event, which was described as well by his Pulitzer-prize winning biographers, Taylor Branch and David Garrow.
During the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, King went to bed late one night, but woke when the telephone rang. Yet another angry voice said, “Listen, n—–, we’ve taken all we want from you; before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.” King hung up, but couldn’t fall back to sleep. He wrote that he was frustrated, weak, exhausted, and scared.
It seemed that all of my fears had come down on me at once. I had reached the saturation point. I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward….
With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory: ‘Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I 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….
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.’
Then, King wrote:
It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world.’
I tell you I’ve seen the lightning flash. I’ve heard the thunder roar. I’ve felt sin breakers dashing trying to conquer my soul. But I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me alone. At that moment 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.
Just three nights later, in fact, King was forced to face the bombing of his own home with his wife and baby inside. Miraculously, as he later learned, neither was hurt.
But “strangely enough,” King wrote, even when he did not know their fate, “I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength.”
And the power of that experience stayed with him, he would say, for years. Maybe even up to the day before he died, more than a decade later, when he told the crowd at his “Mountaintop” speech that he feared nothing, despite a bomb threat against his plane that very day and increasing hostility around him in Memphis, where he would soon be shot to death.
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.
You know many historians and social commentators regularly complain today about the “sanitizing” of the radical King. Call this a modest complaint about our pushing to the back burner King’s fervent, born-again faith and his Christ-centered and Christ-fueled crusade for racial peace.