One of my duties at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is to compile the daily Almanac — things that happen on a particular date, celebrity birthdays and a “thought for today,” much of which comes from the Associated Press. The AP noted, and rightly so, that civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was born on this date in 1929.
I took it upon myself to make one small addition — “the Rev.”
We often tend to forget that Dr. King, before becoming a household name, was simply a local Baptist pastor who became, shall we say, a “community organizer” whose passion for justice and reconciliation sprang from his Christian commitment. Indeed, the pastor of my diverse evangelical church referred to him yesterday as “born-again.”
That might sound like a stretch, but as a pre-teen attending a Christian academy in the 1970s I got it.
I didn’t come from a classically Christian family but, after reading some child-oriented material on Dr. King, then dead about four years, that my parents had left around the house, I noticed that he was doing things in the “street” that I was learning in school and the church I was attending at the time. Because I had some behavior issues at the time I became quite a handful, and yet the people there didn’t react the way I thought, and was told, they would. Eventually, they conquered me.
I didn’t realize exactly what happened to me until I read these words from his message “Loving your enemies”: “We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”
It was then that I perceived Dr. King’s long-term strategy. I didn’t say so at the time, but I immediately recognized him as a Christian leader and that ultimately he called upon the Holy Spirit to cause those changes.
And that creates a dilemma for both sides of the political aisle. Though politically he leaned left, secular liberals often downplay the spiritual side of the movement, while many conservatives still don’t appreciate the obstacles, often placed or at least supported by other “Christians,” that he had to overcome. It’s one reason why I’ve always rejected modern conservatism as congruent with the Gospel; in key ways it certainly isn’t.
One friend who was formerly an elementary teacher in the Pittsburgh Public Schools and openly Christian, in teaching about the civil-rights movement, encouraged her students to sing hymns in class. Administrators really couldn’t do anything about that since participants in the movement did sing hymns — call her efforts subversive if you will, but the sentiment was entirely accurate.
Perhaps it’s time that we as a nation understood that the dismantling of Jim Crow laws happened not just through legal challenges but because God Himself changed hearts and minds to a point where injustices were recognized for what they were — opposition to the intention of God Himself. And Dr. King should be recognized not just for what he did but also how and why he did it.