In preparation for this year’s MLK Day, I read David J. Garrow’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Bearing the Cross. Garrow offers a compelling in-depth look at Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his involvement in the civil rights movement. The author also provides extensive insight into the historical background of the United States during the fifties and sixties, and through this analysis was able to convey the intensity of the injustices, the urgent need for change, the perpetual threat of oppositional violence, and the internal divisions that plagued the civil rights movement.
Reading about Dr. King’s convictions, knowledge, and faith was inspiring. He was an incredible visionary whose depth of understanding, humility, strength of character, faith, extensive education and training, as well as strong public speaking and negotiating skills, helped form him into the charismatic leader chosen to represent the civil rights movement. Before I read this book, my previous notions of MLK were of him being head and shoulders above everyone else, a practically flawless leader. However, as I read accounts of his persistent personal struggles, anxieties, doubts, and concerns, I was struck by just how normal he was.
In the epilogue of the book, the author included a quote by Professor Charles Willie, a college classmate of Dr. King’s: “By idolizing those whom we honor, we do a disservice both to them and to ourselves. By exalting the accomplishments of Martin Luther King, Jr., into a legendary tale that is annually told, we fail to recognize his humanity -his personal and public struggles- that are similar to yours and mine. By idolizing those whom we honor, we fail to realize that we could go and do likewise.” What a profound statement; by taking a person’s successes out of context of their complete life story, we essentially separate them from the rest of humanity and thus use our own personal shortcomings as excuses for an exemption to work toward making a difference. When we deify charismatic leaders, there’s a danger of eventually learning their inevitable shortcomings or faults and being disappointed in their humanity. Unfortunately, we often find it simpler to dismiss their influence altogether, rather than allow for nuance by also acknowledging their humanity. This makes it easy to fall into the trap of either denying any shortcomings by placing the leader on a pedestal, or discounting an individual’s crucial contributions by hyperfocusing on their personal, moral, or ethical failings. I’m starting to realize that finding a balance between highlighting a leader’s strengths and undeniable talents while also acknowledging their humanity is critical to gain a better understanding of history.
MLK Day, rightfully, focuses on celebrating and honoring Dr. King’s major accomplishments and powerful speeches. Understandably, the nuance of his struggles and personal life choices are not typically mentioned. However, throughout his book, Garrow did not shy away from presenting King’s internal struggle over his moral shortcomings. He discussed how King acknowledged publicly the presence of a sense of “both” within all of us. In a sermon, King reminded, “We’re split up and divided against ourselves. There is something of a civil war going on within all our lives. Within the best of us there is some evil, and within the worst of us there is some good.” As I reflected on the nuance of both evil and good being a part of everyone, I realized that while I agree with the sentiment, I struggle to apply it – I have a tendency to want to label people either “good” or “bad.” That’s the easy route, the approach that accommodates simplicity and rejects the messy presence of nuance. Of course, life and people aren’t simple but instead incredibly messy and nuanced. Furthermore, through the lens of the Christian faith, I realized that oversimplifying into separate “good” and “bad” categories eliminates the need for grace. Reading MLK’s sermons on this topic reminded me yet again of the importance of perpetual grace. “I want you to know…that I am a sinner like all of God’s children, but I want to be a good man, and I want to hear a voice saying to me one day, ‘I take you in and I bless you because you tried. It was well that it was within thy heart,” King asserted. Learning about King’s humanity, his struggles and failings, encouraged me to realize just how normal he was, how he needed grace just like the rest of us. The fact that MLK struggled in so many ways and yet continued to persevere, proves how right the cause he fought for was. It also proves how God uses people, flawed humans, again and again to pursue truth, justice, and love in the world.
Faith played a fundamental role in both MLK’s position as a leader as well as the goals of the civil rights movement, particularly the work of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King led. Dr. Anderson, a physician activist in the civil rights movement in Albany, observed that King “literally felt as though this was a divine calling…This was not a job for him, this was a life’s commitment.” Even as King recognized his role as a direct calling from God, he encouraged others to remember that everyone is called to a unique path, “We have a responsibility to set out to discover what we are made for, to discover our life’s work, to discover what we are called to do. And after we discover that, we should set out to do it with all of the strength and all of the power that we can muster.” A humbling reminder when, at times, attempting to make a difference in the world can feel like an insurmountable uphill battle; however, when we refous on our God-given gifts and remember that we’re not alone, we find renewed strength to continue the journey.
Even though MLK felt a conviction that he had been called, I was struck by the repeated assertions throughout the book of how he also felt he had been thrust into the leadership role in the civil rights movement. His hesitancy to be a leader continued for the duration of his life and he often shared how he would have preferred a quiet life of teaching and preaching. Even after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, King continued to remain humble and emphasize the importance of the civil rights movement itself, rather than exalt himself for his leadership role, explaining to reporters, “History has thrust me into this position. It would both be immoral and a sign of ingratitude if I did not face my moral responsibility to do what I can in this struggle.”
Faith, in addition to being integral to the movement, was also fundamental in supporting King through the most difficult moments. I was awed by some of the quotes shared throughout the book that exemplified his beliefs and how they sustained him with courage and comfort, “There is nothing to be afraid of if you believe and know that the cause for which you stand is right. You are ready to face anything and you face it with a humble smile on your face, because you know that all of eternity stands with you and the angels stand beside you and you know that you are right.”
I could elaborate for at least ten more pages on the compelling quotes and insight highlighted throughout the book, but I’ll conclude with a unique aspect that I find I need to hear again and again: the reminder to patiently listen, to keep room at the table for various opinions, perspectives and approaches, and to always pursue truth. Even as King maintained strong convictions and unwaveringly pursued the movement’s goals, he continued to invite conversation with those of differing opinions. The civil rights movement faced a chasm of differences in the communities they worked to bring about change. Beyond the criticism from opposing sides, King also dealt with extensive disagreement within the civil rights movement. Rather than shut down divergent opinions and approaches to the best methods for bringing about change, King patiently encouraged dialogue. Andrew Young, one of his closest advisors, shared that King, “would want somebody to express as radical a view as possible and somebody to express as conservative a view as possible…He figured…the wider variety of opinions you got, the better chance you had of extracting the truth from that.” In an era where synthesizing divergent perspectives or finding compromise within even the slightest difference of opinions feels like an impossible challenge, it was compelling to learn of MLK’s comfort with varying viewpoints and his ability to work toward change despite facing continual disputes.
As we pause today to recognize and honor one of our nation’s heroes, I remain in awe of the work that Dr. King undertook and the conviction of faith he maintained through it all. Despite the darkness, danger, and unbelievable opposition he and the movement faced, King remained rooted in his convictions and sense of hope. In one of his most recognizable speeches, given at the Lincoln Memorial, he conveyed a hopeful message of faith for the future: “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.” As I learned more about MLK and the civil rights movement this past month of reading Garrow’s book, I felt inspired to do my part to continue to grow and learn, to extend grace, to genuinely listen to differing perspectives, and to work to uncover my life’s work and calling as I pursue with renewed vigor to make a difference through hope and love.
Wendi is co-author of The Unexpected Ever Afters blog and enjoys sipping extra hot coffee, sharing a love of reading with her kids, and exploring bike trails.
photo credit: personal photo