Romans 12: 9-21
McKownville (NY) United Methodist Church
January 15, 2005
On the evening of January 27, 1956, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., could not sleep. He was in the middle of a struggle he did not begin, leading a movement he did not design, in a city where he was not a native
son. King had come to Montgomery, Alabama less than two years previous
to that day, and after about a year of successfully pastoring in the Dexter Ave. Baptist Church, he found himself chosen as the leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which had begun a bus boycott. As you may know, the boycott began after Mrs. Rosa Parks had decided that she would no longer put up with the local segregation laws. When the bus driver told her to give up her seat a white person, she refused. The driver called the police, she was arrested, and at her trial she was quickly convicted and fined $10.
But the case didn't end there. Over the next year, it went all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, African Americans in Montgomery, who were the great majority of bus patrons, staged a boycott. Under the auspices of the Montgomery Improvement Assoc., they met regularly in mass meetings, strategized in small groups, kept the legal battle going, and formed car pools to pick up people each day at various churches to take them to work and back home again.
None of this set very well with those who wished to keep things the way they were. Dr. King and his family received numerous death threats and obscene phone calls. He was only 27 years old at the time, married less than five
years, and had a one-year-old daughter. When the city police began
harassing anyone who participated in the car pools, one of the first to be arrested was Martin King. After spending the night in a filthy jail cell he returned home, but the experience left him quite shaken. So, the next night, he couldn't sleep. And later on, he described that night in the following words.
“The first 25 years of my life were very comfortable years, very happy years.... I had grown up in the church, and the church meant something very real to me, but it was a kind of inherited religion and I had never felt an experience with God in the way that you must, and have it if you're going to
walk the lonely paths of life... It was around midnight. You can have
some strange experiences at midnight. (That night, a phone caller had told
him.) ‘We're tired of you and your mess now, and if you aren't out of
this town in three days, we're going to blow your brains out, and blow up your house.’ And I thought about a beautiful little daughter who had just been born... And I started thinking about a dedicated, devoted, and loyal wife... And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me, and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed down over that cup of coffee. I never will forget it... And I prayed out loud that night. I said, ‘Lord, I'm down here trying to do what's right... But Lord, I must confess that I'm weak now. I'm faltering. I'm losing my courage. 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.’ And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘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 heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on.
He promised never to leave me alone. No, never alone." (Bearing the Cross, David J. Garrow, © 1986, p. 57-58.)
That night in the kitchen was a turning point for Martin King. From then on, the pattern continued. Although he became known as the foremost of leaders in the fight for human rights for people of all colors in this nation, he was often swept into events that he did not plan to become involved in.
About a year after the bus dispute was settled and Montgomery's segregation laws declared unconstitutional, there was still the task of applying the same standard to hundreds of cities and states all around the country. In the 1950s, virtually everything was segregated: schools, busses, trains, restaurants, transportation terminals, rest rooms, city parks, movie theaters, even the water fountains were labeled "Whites Only" or "Colored Only". Perhaps you’ve heard of the "Freedom Rides". King didn't start these. Some college students started them to see whether Interstate busses and depots would be open to integrated groups. And often they were not. A lot of people got arrested and went to jail. There was s short skirmish in Albany, Ga. that didn't gain much for the movement, except a lot of experience in how not to run a protest.
But then there was "Bull" Connor, the police commissioner of Birmingham, Alabama. It's been said more than once that he did more for the Civil Rights movement than any other person up to that time. It was his use of police dogs and high-pressure fire hoses to disperse the demonstrators that got the protests on the front pages and the network news shows. The protest in Birmingham started for equal employment and access to downtown department stores. By the time it was over, they made some small gains there, but the Southern Christian Leadership Conference suddenly became a household word.
As I’ve studied the American Civil Rights Movement, one thing I've been impressed with is that it was not a unified project. Many, many people worked to desegregate America and start more equal treatment for people of all kinds. And there was plenty of conflict among all those who participated. The NAACP had been around for a long time before Martin King began his work. They were mainly a legal defense organization, dedicated to pursuing equal rights through the courts. King, and his organization the SCLC, had decided that direct, non-violent action was much quicker and more effective. There was also the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. SNCC began as an offshoot of the SCLC. Some had argued that the students should have been organized as a junior arm of the SCLC. But King and a few others believed that college students should be allowed to go on their own. After King's death, they became quite radical, as you may recall. And when riots broke out in the "Long hot summer" of '68, it was hard to believe that this was the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. But then, I'm getting ahead of the story.
During the early 1960's as you may recall, President John Kennedy and his brother Robert, were sympathetic to supporting racial equality, but afraid that they couldn't get the votes in Congress to pass any significant civil rights legislation. The Kennedy Administration did help out several times, making sure things didn't get out of hand in several cities. More than once, phone calls from Bobby Kennedy or even John himself helped support King or ease the tensions. So, Dr. King and his allies began to see it was not the Kennedy's who needed convincing, but the Congress. So, the 1963 March on Washington was designed to put pressure on the legislature to pass a meaningful national civil rights bill.
It was there, of course that the crown of 250,000 people gathered before the Lincoln Memorial, Mahalia Jackson sang the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and Martin Luther King delivered his most famous speech, "I have a dream." He ended that speech with the words of that famous Spiritual, "Free At Last, Free at Last, Thank God almighty, we’re free at last." And those words are written on his tomb in Atlanta, Ga. For as we all know, the enemies who circled around him finally got their chance in April of 1968. King had been threatened before. Earlier in his career a mentally unstable person stabbed him in the chest with a letter opener. Had he not remained calm, it could have severed his aorta and killed him then. At various times, his home had been shot at or bombed. Once the whole front of the house was blown off.
How he survived as long as he did is a miracle in itself. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be 75 years old today had he survived. Many have said he could have been elected president. That’s something we may never know. But we do know that when he found himself in a position where he could be helpful in establishing justice, dignity and freedom for all, he did not back down. He stood up for truth.
Perhaps we, in a much smaller way, can do something along the same lines.
What is there today that must be known or done? How can each of us stand up for truth wherever it may be helpful or honorable to do so? These words of Martin Luther King Jr. are still with us today: "Stand up for righteousness.
Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth.” And Jesus Christ continues to say, “I will be with you, even until the end of the world.”