The life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., is, and will continue to be, debated in America. (It is far less debated by non-Americans who see him almost entirely in positive terms.) I suppose it will take another forty years for his life to be fully appreciated in the way it really should be. But today is a very unique reminder of his life's message. As we stand on the eve of the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States we see a part of Dr. King's dream alive and well.

Appreciating Dr. King was not always the case, especially among many white Christians in America. When I was a child he was widely hated. Some even said he was a Communist, following the lead of J. Edgar Hoover, a shady and less than decent man if there ever was one. (And he promoted religion as the basis for American life. I can still recall  a tract he wrote urging parents to take their children to Sunday School.) Personally, I thank God the "good ole days" days of the 1960s are gone, though there is still much to be done as we seek to process and apply King's legacy. And racism is a long way from over. Anyone who is observant can see this is true every single day.

Martin Luther King, Jr., as we all know, lived a relatively short life filled with amazing drama. It culminated in his assassination in Memphis. This fateful day and time I will never forget. I was a student standing on the balcony of my apartment building at the University of Alabama when I first heard the news. I saw a mixture of sadness and joy all around me. It was quite eerie in one sense. I was still processing how I understood the times and cannot say that I was a civil-rights marcher or a strong advocate of Dr. King's work, though I did know in my heart of hearts that King was essentially right about the problem in America. I regret I did not see this sooner and actually join him but honesty compels me to tell the truth about my own development.

Just before Dr. King's tragic death he said: "Whenever you set out to build a temple, you must face the fact that there is a tension at the heart of the universe between good and evil." He lived in that tension and modeled grace in the midst of what we now know was deep human fear. The man was courageous but filled with doubt. He was faithful to the call God had placed upon his life. What is tragic in today's world is that so few who celebrate his life realize that he got this boldness from a deep awareness that God had called him to this work against his own will. I know what some will say—his theology was not conservative at every point. This is true but his faith was obviously deep and real and his life, though morally flawed, was a living testimony to the grace of God.

Raised by a strict minister father who "ruled his home like a fierce Old Testament patriarch" King first became a scholar who was passionately caught up with the teachings of Jesus, Thoreau and Gandhi. This, of course, is not your typical threesome for influence in most conservative circles. He was eventually driven by a vision of racial equality in a time when such seemed utterly impossible. But what he really wanted was to be a university professor more than anything else. He longed to do research and to write, to teach and to settle into a home life of simple joy. He really had little desire to be in the South, much less as a pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. His pastorate was really meant to be a stepping-stone to the better life ahead. But the racial discrimination that he saw firsthand stirred him to action. The forces that shaped him—parental, cultural, spiritual and intellectual—all came to bear on his soul at a critical juncture in American history. The rest is history.

Today King is in danger of becoming an abstract symbol. But the man is far more important than this symbol. In the man we see all the weakness joined with all the grace. We see the intellect linked with compassion and to a deep sense of justice. We see the flaws but we also see the beauty.

The single most powerful thing I have learned from Dr. King is found in five simple words: "I spoke from the heart" (1963). I have always tried to do the same, whether to friend or foe. It has gotten me into trouble but it has always led me to the love of Christ in the end.

Martin Luther King, Jr., did speak from the heart and the world was better because he did. He surely made mistakes but he learned from them time and time again. He learned to take action after sober, calculated and prayerful reflection. And he learned quickly from many hard experiences. The man then powerfully used peace to bring about justice during a time of amazing social upheaval that the present generation knows so little about. May the remembrance of this good man today bring about a new call for justice and peace in America.

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  1. Dave Moorhead January 19, 2009 at 12:02 pm

    I was a young teenager in the fateful Spring of ’68 and the events of the Viet Nam War, the civil rights movement, and the presidential campaign all came together to shape my view of America and politics for the rest of my life. All I know was that God used all of these things to create a strong hatred for injustice and a passion for changing it. Much to the frustration of most of the people around me at the time, Dr. King became a hero image for me and the influence of his life and words are still very visible in my ministry today. My eldest son was born on his birthday and I always thought that was a kind of blessing!

  2. Jessica Fick January 19, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    Great post John, thanks for your reflections on MLK day. It does feel especially significant to be celebrating his life the day before Obama’s inauguration.

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