The monumental campaigning of Martin Luther King, Jr., for civil rights in the 1950s and 60s was inspired by his faith. His eloquent rhetoric challenged the racism systemic in society and ushered in a time of societal and personal reform. Civil and human rights remain at the vanguard of all social action, but Dr King’s witness shone in the darkness as a witness of hope and change.
On 5 December 1955, a barely-known pastor stood at the pulpit in front of a crowded church in Montgomery, Alabama. ‘We are here this evening for serious business,’ he began, in a deep, powerful voice that seemed older than his 26 years, ‘…Negroes have been intimidated and humiliated and oppressed because of the fact that they were Negroes. I (won’t) go into the history of these numerous cases. Many of them are lost in the thick fog of oblivion, but one stands before us now with
That young pastor was Martin Luther King, Jr., and the case he was referring to was that of Rosa Parks, a black woman who was arrested days earlier because she refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white person. King encouraged the people of Montgomery to protest.
‘We are not wrong in what we are doing,’ he continued, ‘…If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to Earth. If we are wrong, justice is a lie; love has no meaning. We are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.’
Using a system of carpooling, people boycotted the town’s buses for over a year until the buses were desegregated. This was one of the key events at the start
of the African-American Civil
Today, the U.S has had a black president, but it was nearly 70 years ago that Rosa Parks was expected to give up her seat and 159 years ago that slavery was stopped in Maryland. The film, 12 Years A Slave, is hard to stomach, but ought to be watched. Based on a true story, it shows the (often) daily rape, beatings and killings that white slavers carried out.
The 200-year long horrors of the slave-worked cotton farms of the U.S. occurred on a sickening scale. In 1860, in the Deep South (which encompasses Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina), 2,312,352 slaves made up 47% of the population.
Even after Lincoln abolished slavery in 1865, involuntary labour, racist violence and segregation continued. A young Martin Luther King, Jr. experienced this at the age of 6 when a white boy was forbidden from playing with him. He was referred to as a ‘little nigger’ and watched his Father storm out of a shop when commanded to move to the ‘coloured’ section to be served. On a long bus trip, King was made to relinquish his seat to a white person, and thus had to stand for 90 miles.
All this fuelled the passionate speeches King gave during the course of the civil rights campaign. After the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he cofounded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) group, which led protests. Footage of SCLC protesters (including children) being attacked by police dogs in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, received national television coverage and desegregation resulted. King was imprisoned and wrote his powerful ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’, in which he wonders about the white Christians standing on the sidelines (or worse) amid the Civil Rights Movement, ‘Who is their God?’ The letter ends with him hoping that: ‘in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation.’
King had studied reams of philosophy and theology, including Mahatma Gandhi’s approach of non-violence. ‘At the center of non-violence stands the principle of love,’ said King, who was vehement that there be no aggressive protest. ‘Non-violence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.’
King’s belief in non-retaliation came from what he had endured. His Father whipped him until the age of 15 and was once overheard proclaiming: ‘I will make something of you, even if I have to beat you to death.’ King tried to commit suicide twice before the age of 13. Then at 22, he was unable to marry the great love of his life because she was white; a loss he never recovered from.
He often felt overwhelmed by and incapable of his leadership of the Civil Rights Movement, and fears of an imminent death plagued him.
One of his statements, that ‘Only in the darkness can you see the stars’, reveals the low ebbs he experienced. But in desperate prayer in 1956, he heard Jesus tell him: ‘Stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice…and lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’ This enabled him to confront the turmoil to come.
Insisting that the Civil Rights Movement was a cover for communist infiltration, the FBI put King under constant surveillance. He was physically attacked many times, but he never fought back. The core of his civil rights leadership was his Christianity, and he would repeatedly preach Jesus’ command to ‘Love your enemies’ (Matt 5:44).
King’s vocation reached its zenith when he spoke at the freedom march on Washington in 1963. ‘I have a dream,’ he declared, ‘that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.’ A crowd of 250,000 watched him deliver that incredible speech.
King’s dream of peace so inspired people that they behaved with great bravery. Following his rule of non-violence, SCLC protesters endured even the horrors of what has become known as ‘Bloody Sunday’, a protest march outside Selma, Alabama, in which police used tear gas and beat them
King was shot dead on 4 April 1968. Seven days later, the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1968 was enacted. Despite King’s self-doubt, he had achieved a mammoth change, a triumph of love, all the time knowing Christ was at his side.