The Crucible in which “I Have a Dream” was Forged

Martin Luther King is one of my spiritual mentors from afar.  I’ve listened to his recorded sermons, and learned so much from his life.

One of the most particularly important moments in his life is recounted by Philip Yancey in Soul Survivor, and something I read every year on MLK day to remember what King’s true legacy was all about. May it help you continue to realize that the forces of sin in this world are not stronger than those of God, and that his Kingdom reign can be advanced with the decisions of ordinary folks to trust and follow God at his word.

You can read the whole chapter here, but I’ve attached the excerpt from Philip Yancey’s Soul Survivor.  Feel free to forward to your friends.

David Garrow builds his book around the scene of King‘s supernatural call, early in his career. “It was the most important night of his life,” writes Garrow, “the one he always would think back to in future years when the pressures again seemed to be too great.” King had been thrust into civil rights leadership in Montgomery, Alabama, after Rosa Parks had made her brave decision not to move to the back of the bus. The black community formed a new organization to lead a bus boycott and by default chose as a compromise candidate for its leadership the new minister in town, King, who at age twenty-six looked “more like a boy than a man.” Growing up in middle-class surroundings, with a kind of inherited religion from his preacher father, he hardly felt qualified to lead a great moral crusade.

As soon as King‘s leadership of the movement was announced, the threats from the Klan began. Not only the Klan-within days King was arrested for driving 30 miles per hour in a 25 mph zone and thrown into the Montgomery city jail. The following night King, shaken by his first jail experience, sat up in his kitchen wondering if he could take it anymore. Should he resign? It was around midnight. He felt agitated, and full of fear. A few minutes before, the phone had rung. “Nigger, we are 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.”

King sat staring at an untouched cup of coffee and tried to think of a way out, a way to quietly surrender leadership and resume the serene life of scholarship he had planned. In the next room lay his wife Coretta, already asleep, along with their newborn daughter Yolanda. Here is how King remembers it in a sermon he preached:

And I sat at that table thinking about that little girl and thinking about the fact that she could be taken away from me any minute. And I started thinking about a dedicated, devoted and loyal wife, who was over there asleep. . . . And I got to the point that I couldn’t take it anymore. I was weak. . . .

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. . . . I prayed a prayer, and I prayed out loud that night. I said, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage.”

. . . 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, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.

(From sermon tape)

Three nights later, as promised, a bomb exploded on the front porch of King‘s home, filling the house with smoke and broken glass but injuring no one. King took it calmly: “My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it.”

David Garrow weaves his narrative around that “visitation” at the kitchen table, returning to it again and again, because King drew strength from that memory at every hinge moment in his life. For him it became the bedrock of personal faith, an anointing from God for a particular task. As I read accounts of King‘s life, and his many references to that night, I am struck by the simplicity of the message he received: “I am with you.” Those words convey an underlying theme of the Bible: the Immanuel (“God with us”) presence of God. Over the next thirteen years of his career, King had other religious experiences, and many moments of crisis, but none to match what happened that night at his kitchen table. This one word sufficed.

May God, Immanuel, empower you to continue His work and call others to follow Him to join him in the restoration of this world as he restores us along the way.

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January 2012

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