Community Should Honor the Vision and Ideals of Martin Luther King Jr.
By James E. Brenneman
Students, faculty, staff, administrators, alumni and friends will pause Monday at Goshen College to honor the life and work of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The college’s 14th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Study Day provides an opportunity for the entire community to join in a day of prayer, reflection, instruction and celebration. All are welcome to visit the college for a full day of activities, including theater presentations, music, a film festival, discussions and special programs for children.
It is right and good to set aside this day to honor Dr. King. Although he was a flawed prophet, King still revealed to us the power of God’s upside-down approach to establishing justice on earth. He also taught us that all have value as individuals, regardless of our race or ethnicity or circumstances.
In the Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr., the great civil rights leader described how his mother, Alberta Williams King, confronted the age-old problem of any African-American family raising children in the segregated South of the 1930s. How was she to explain discrimination and segregation to a 5-year-old kid?
King relates how she told him about slavery and how it ended. She tried to explain the divided system of the South — segregated schools, restaurants, theaters, housing, waiting rooms, the “white” and “colored” signs over water fountains, public bathrooms, and at beaches.
King’s mother made it clear that she opposed this system and that little Martin must never allow it to make him feel inferior. Then she said to him these words: “(Martin) you are as good as anyone.”
Alberta Williams King gave Martin something far more precious than gold; she gave him an identity, self-respect, “sombodiness” in the face of a system that, King writes, “stared me in the face every day saying “you are less than” and “you are not equal to” and “you are nobody.”
Despite the insults and the hatred, Martin Luther King Jr. says he found it quite easy to think of a God of love because, he writes, “I grew up in a family where love was central and where lovely relationships were ever present.”
In a world of the ugliest racism, of horrible injustice, of brutal repression, King went on to say, “It was quite easy for me to think of the universe as basically friendly … it was quite easy for me to lean more toward optimism than pessimism about human nature … and that has made all the difference in the world to me.”
Love enabled Martin Luther King Jr. not to see life’s injustices, but to work toward transforming them in constructive ways. Still, that understanding had to develop in him.
King told the story of when he was just 14 years old and had just given an award-winning speech entitled, “The Negro and the Constitution,” at an oratorical contest in Dublin, Ga. He and his teacher boarded a bus to return to Atlanta. Along the way, some white passengers got on the bus and the driver ordered King and his teacher to give up their seats.
Because they didn’t move fast enough, the driver started cursing at them. King wrote, “We stood up in the aisle for 90 miles to Atlanta. That night will never leave my memory. It was the angriest I have ever been in my life.”
King began to despair whether the power of love he knew so intimately and so personally could, in fact, ever solve the social system he was part of. He began to imagine, like so many before and since, that the only way to solve the problems of racism and segregation was armed revolt. King would ask himself in these moments, “How could I ever love a race of people who hated me so?”
King said that it was in these darkest times that “I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. Fight on, Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And, lo, I will be with you … but fight with the weapon of love.”
King discovered that the love he knew personally and intimately was also a fierce love — a love known by Jesus that was more than a mere interaction between individuals. Rather, it was a powerful restraining love, a potent instrument for social and collective transformation. Such love, King wrote, was “the only morally and practically sound weapon open to oppressed people.”
If we are to honor Martin Luther King Jr. in this season of remembering his birthday, if we are to honor his legacy and that of the Christ he followed, let us pray that we too hear the voice of Jesus say “Fight on! Fight on with the weapon of love. Never give up. I will not leave or forsake you.”
James E. Brenneman is president of Goshen College, a four-year residential Christian liberal arts college rooted in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. The college’s Christ-centered core values — passionate learning, global citizenship, compassionate peacemaking and servant-leadership — prepare students as leaders for the church and world. Learn more at www.goshen.edu or call (574) 535-7000.
Published: in The Goshen News, page C-4, Jan. 14, 2007
NOTE: No online link is available.