By Sister Lois Anne Palkert, OSF
January is a time we remember one man who had a dream, a dream that changed the United States. Since 1986 the third Monday of January has been a federal holiday in observance of the birthday of Martin Luther King JR, a Baptist minister, Nobel Peace Prize winner and civil rights leader dedicated to nonviolence. Although Martin Luther King is primarily remembered in the 21st century for his famous “I Have Dream” speech delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963 there are many other reasons for celebrating and debating his life’s legacy.
When Martin Luther King made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech he dreamed of a day when race, color, creed and ethnicity would be transcended. Commenting on American Race relations and the difference between now and King’s era, Jerome Hudson from Breithart News observed “we have not reached the mountaintop, but for all intents and purposed, we certainly are closer. We’ve come a long way as viewing one another, whether we look different or not, as equal, as Thomas Jefferson would want us to do.”
Although Martin Luther King has long been hailed as a civil rights leader, he is also one of the great spiritual leaders of our time. Lewis Baldwin professor of religious studies at Vanderbilt University believes that one aspect of his life has often been overlooked: the role of prayer. King always made it clear that his civil rights and political activities were an extension of his ministry.
For King personal prayer and public prayer were equally significant. Public prayer was important to him because he understood prayer as a form of creative energy. It was a way of motivating, affirming and empowering people in the struggle for equal rights. Prayer was King’s secret weapon in the civil rights movement, a key to its success. In prayer King and the people found the strength to continue despite arrests and killings.
In 1956 after a midnight call from a racist who threatened to kill him and destroy his home, King had, transformative prayer experience.
“He retreated to his kitchen and over a cup of coffee poured his heart out to God,” Baldwin relates.
“Lord, I’m down here trying to do what is right. Now I am afraid. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
Shortly after, King re-counts, he experienced the divine like he had never experienced him before. King heard an inner voice assure him, “King, stand up for justice.” He knew God was with him and would be with him until the end. In Standing in the Need of Prayer Coretta King writes, “When Martin stood up from the table, he was imbued with a new sense of confidence, and he was ready to face anything.
Three days later his house was bombed. No one was harmed.
King claims that this experience was one of his most revelatory spiritual experiences, a meaningful turning point in his rise to leadership, as well as the entire movement for African Americans in their fight for freedom.
King often included this experience in his sermons, saying he had a vision of God telling him to “stand up” for righteousness and assuring him that he would always have God’s companionship.
Prayer was King’s secret weapon in the civil rights movement, according to Lewis Baldwin. Despite death threats and insurmountable challenges, King found courage in prayer to keep going.
King never took credit for the civil rights movement. He insisted that the movement was beyond any one person and that he “just happened to be there.” Following a sermon in Montgomery, Alabama, he prayed: “Help me, O God, to see that I’m just a symbol of a movement.
Even though King denied credit for the movement it seems his presence during the Civil Rights movement was no accident. He transformed his fear into assurance through the power of prayer and led the movement with an unshakable spiritual strength. In prayer he found the courage to keep going, teaching us that prayer must be a part of any movement for social action.
King’s prayers were influenced by the legacies of St Francis of Assis and nonviolence advocate Mahatma Gandhi. For King they became a pioneering aspect of interracial and interfaith dialogue. He was able to intersect into the civil rights movement Christians, Muslims, Jews, Protestants, Catholics and “they all sing together and pray together.”
What would happen if more of our leaders openly drew upon the power of prayer and if we continued to use prayer in our social actions for change?
With the passage of the King Holiday and Service Act in 1994, the Martín Luther King holiday was transformed into a national day of citizen action and volunteer service, moving us closer to Dr. King’s vision of a “Beloved Community.”
“Life’s most urgent question: what are you doing for others?’” (Martin Luther King ) Words worth pondering as we celebrate his birthday and commemorate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King.