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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929-April 4, 1968) “was a Baptist minister and social activist who played a key role in the American civil rights movement from the mid-1950s until his assassination in 1968. Inspired by advocates of nonviolence such as Mahatma Gandhi, King sought equality for African Americans, the economically disadvantaged and victims of injustice through peaceful protest. He was the driving force behind watershed events such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March on Washington, which helped bring about such landmark legislation as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and is remembered each year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a U.S. federal holiday since 1986″ (quote source: History.com).
Dr. King is universally known for his speeches, the most famous of which is his “I Have A Dream” speech given in 1963. Wikipedia provided the following information regarding both his sermons and his speeches (quote source here):
The sermons and speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., comprise an extensive catalog of American writing and oratory – some of which are internationally well-known, while others remain unheralded, and some await rediscovery.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a prominent African-American clergyman, a civil rights leader, and a Nobel laureate.
King himself observed, “In the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher.”
The famous “I Have a Dream” address was delivered in August 1963 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Less well-remembered are the early sermons of that young, 25-year-old pastor who first began preaching at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama in 1954. As a political leader in the Civil Rights Movement and as a modest preacher in a Baptist church, King evolved and matured across the span of a life cut short. The range of his rhetoric was anticipated and encompassed within “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” [e.g., concern for oneself, concern for humanity, concern for the spiritual] which he preached as his trial sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1954 and every year thereafter for the rest of his life (YouTube Video of this 40-minute sermon given on April 4, 1967–exactly one year from the date he was assassinated in 1968–is available here). (Quote source here.)
The second child of Martin Luther King Sr. (1899-1984), a pastor, and Alberta Williams King (1904-1974), a former schoolteacher, Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15, 1929. Along with his older sister, the future Christine King Farris (born 1927), and younger brother, Alfred Daniel Williams King (1930-1969), he grew up in the city’s Sweet Auburn neighborhood, then home to some of the most prominent and prosperous African Americans in the country.
A gifted student, King attended segregated public schools and at the age of 15 was admitted to Morehouse College, the alma mater of both his father and maternal grandfather, where he studied medicine and law. Although he had not intended to follow in his father’s footsteps by joining the ministry, he changed his mind under the mentorship of Morehouse’s president, Dr. Benjamin Mays, an influential theologian and outspoken advocate for racial equality. After graduating in 1948, King entered Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, where he earned a Bachelor of Divinity degree, won a prestigious fellowship and was elected president of his predominantly white senior class.
King then enrolled in a graduate program at Boston University, completing his coursework in 1953 and earning a doctorate in systematic theology two years later. While in Boston he met Coretta Scott (1927-2006), a young singer from Alabama who was studying at the New England Conservatory of Music. The couple wed in 1953 and settled in Montgomery, Alabama, where King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. They had four children: Yolanda Denise King (1955-2007), Martin Luther King III (born 1957), Dexter Scott King (born 1961) and Bernice Albertine King (born 1963).
The King family had been living in Montgomery for less than a year when the highly segregated city became the epicenter of the burgeoning struggle for civil rights in America, galvanized by the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision of 1954. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks (1913-2005), secretary of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP] chapter, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery bus and was arrested. Activists coordinated a bus boycott that would continue for 381 days, placing a severe economic strain on the public transit system and downtown business owners. They chose Martin Luther King Jr. as the protest’s leader and official spokesman.
By the time the Supreme Court ruled segregated seating on public buses unconstitutional in November 1956, King, heavily influenced by Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) and the activist Bayard Rustin (1912-1987), had entered the national spotlight as an inspirational proponent of organized, nonviolent resistance. (He had also become a target for white supremacists, who firebombed his family home that January.) Emboldened by the boycott’s success, in 1957 he and other civil rights activists–most of them fellow ministers–founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a group committed to achieving full equality for African Americans through nonviolence. (Its motto was “Not one hair of one head of one person should be harmed.”) He would remain at the helm of this influential organization until his death.
In his role as SCLC president, Martin Luther King Jr. traveled across the country and around the world, giving lectures on nonviolent protest and civil rights as well as meeting with religious figures, activists and political leaders. (During a month-long trip to India in 1959, he had the opportunity to meet family members and followers of Gandhi, the man he described in his autobiography as “the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.”) King also authored several books and articles during this time.
In 1960 King and his family moved to Atlanta, his native city, where he joined his father as co-pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. This new position did not stop King and his SCLC colleagues from becoming key players in many of the most significant civil rights battles of the 1960s. Their philosophy of nonviolence was put to a particularly severe test during the Birmingham campaign of 1963, in which activists used a boycott, sit-ins and marches to protest segregation, unfair hiring practices and other injustices in one of America’s most racially divided cities. Arrested for his involvement on April 12, King penned the civil rights manifesto known as the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” an eloquent defense of civil disobedience addressed to a group of white clergymen who had criticized his tactics.
Later that year, Martin Luther King Jr. worked with a number of civil rights and religious groups to organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a peaceful political rally designed to shed light on the injustices African Americans continued to face across the country. Held on August 28 and attended by some 200,000 to 300,000 participants, the event is widely regarded as a watershed moment in the history of the American civil rights movement and a factor in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The march culminated in King’s most famous address, known as the “I Have a Dream” speech, a spirited call for peace and equality that many consider a masterpiece of rhetoric. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial–a monument to the president who a century earlier had brought down the institution of slavery in the United States—he shared his vision of a future in which “this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” The speech and march cemented King’s reputation at home and abroad; later that year he was named Man of the Year by TIME magazine and in 1964 became the youngest person ever awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
In the spring of 1965, King’s elevated profile drew international attention to the violence that erupted between white segregationists and peaceful demonstrators in Selma, Alabama, where the SCLC and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had organized a voter registration campaign. Captured on television, the brutal scene outraged many Americans and inspired supporters from across the country to gather in Selma and take part in a march to Montgomery led by King and supported by President Lyndon Johnson (1908-1973), who sent in federal troops to keep the peace. That August, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which guaranteed the right to vote–first awarded by the 15th Amendment–to all African Americans.
The events in Selma deepened a growing rift between Martin Luther King Jr. and young radicals who repudiated his nonviolent methods and commitment to working within the established political framework. As more militant black leaders such as Stokely Carmichael (1941-1998) rose to prominence, King broadened the scope of his activism to address issues such as the Vietnam War and poverty among Americans of all races. In 1967, King and the SCLC embarked on an ambitious program known as the Poor People’s Campaign, which was to include a massive march on the capital.
On the evening of April 4, 1968, King was fatally shot while standing on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, where he had traveled to support a sanitation workers’ strike. In the wake of his death, a wave of riots swept major cities across the country, while President Johnson declared a national day of mourning. James Earl Ray (1928-1998), an escaped convict and known racist, pleaded guilty to the murder and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. (He later recanted his confession and gained some unlikely advocates, including members of the King family, before his death in 1998.)
After years of campaigning by activists, members of Congress and Coretta Scott King, among others, in 1983 President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) signed a bill creating a U.S. federal holiday in honor of King. Observed on the third Monday of January, it was first celebrated in 1986. (Quote source here.)
It is noted in the above article that “the final section of Martin Luther King Jr.’s eloquent and iconic “I Have a Dream” speech is believed to have been largely improvised” (quote source here). Here are the words from that section from the 17-minute speech delivered on August 28, 1963 (quote source here):
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”
This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:
My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.
And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that:
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
(Quote source here.)
I’ll end this post with the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stated in the photo at the opening of this blog post. . . .
Injustice anywhere. . .
Is a threat . . .
To justice everywhere. . . .
Forgiveness is not often a two-way street. Ideally, when given, we hope for that response (e.g., reciprocity). And more often than not, we don’t receive it. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world. Not. Even. Close. In fact, many times at the core of anger is a “spirit of unforgiveness,” usually stemming from very real circumstances that happen to us “out of the blue” that we, most likely, will never fully or partially understand.
I read a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. last night that got me thinking about the subject of forgiveness again. It was quoted in the book, “One Simple Act,” by Debbie Macomber, that I mentioned in my last blog post (titled, appropriate enough, “One Simple Act”). The quote is found on page 58 in her book and also at this link. Here’s the quote:
We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.
Debbie Macomber made the following statement after quoting the quote above: “I hope you caught these words: ‘develop and maintain the capacity.’ It sounds as if, according to Dr. King, forgiveness is a discipline that requires practice” (p. 58).
Well, after over five years of trying to deal with it, I have found that forgiveness is, indeed, a discipline that requires practice. And it requires us to both “develop and maintain the capacity to forgive” over and over and over again (e.g., “seventy times seven” as Jesus stated in Matthew 18:21-22). And I only know one Person who can give us what we need to be able to do it. That person is Jesus Christ. In fact, Jesus’ last words on forgiveness came when he was dying on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
Most of the time, we really don’t know what we are doing, which is why forgiveness is so important. Oh, we think we know (we humans have an amazing capacity for excuse making, denial, and deceit), but ultimately, we really don’t know. We just go after what we want however we can get it and often regardless of the cost to others (e.g., whether it’s with those we know or those we don’t know well or at all). And yes, that includes some folks who consider themselves to be Christian as well as most everyone else nowadays.
While I’m not sure I have mentioned it in a previous blog post, I’ve never been able to get Texas out of my mind. Texas, and specifically Houston, is the place where the worst event of my life unfolded over five years ago, and it is that event that led me to start writing this blog back in July 2010. In fact, the theme of this blog stated at the top right hand side on the main page is “Living It Out . . . on WordPress.com.” Living what out, you ask? Living out my Christian faith in the midst of a massively trying circumstance–long term unemployment–and all of the ramifications that come from it. And the ride as been messy at times, just like life. And it’s still ongoing. But it’s become so much more than just that specific ride down the long and winding road of long term unemployment. It’s about how genuine Christianity is really supposed to be lived out in a messy world. And living it out gets messy, too. And we are all a part of it.
I have often written across these pages that it’s not an “us versus them” mentality that we so often have a tendency to come from (and mostly from a “self-preservation” point of view). Yes, evil exists, but just as Dr. King stated above, “There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.” We often fail to acknowledge any evil in ourselves while pointing fingers at the evil in others. And, we are great at justifying ourselves, too.
When I look back on what happened to me during those seven months I was employed in the worst job of my life in Houston, one thing I remember vividly at the time I was fired was what I felt when I was walking out of the building for that final time. I felt both a mixture of great relief and a sense of fear. The relief came because the horror of what happened to me there was finally over, and the fear came because I had just lost–as in immediately–both my job and income (not to mention the other benefits that come from full time employment) in a city and state that I had recently moved 1000 miles to work and live in seven months earlier.
Now before I go any further, this post is not about what happened to me at that job in Houston or even the fact that it has left me unemployed for over five years now. My story can be repeated innumerable times across America and in the rest of the working world around the globe, and countless others have worn those very same shoes that I was forced to wear at that time. As I stated in the first paragraph above, we will oftentimes never fully understand the circumstances behind what happened to us when we are hit full force with something we never saw coming at us in the first place. Had I known what I was walking into, I never would have gone in the first place. Neither would have any of the other folks who have experienced this particular trial or any other trial if they had known what was in store for them . . .
. . . And that’s exactly the point. We don’t know.
We think that evil is “out there somewhere” and that we aren’t a part of it and therefore it can’t hurt us or we try our best to avoid it (and oh, the games we play trying to do that). However, world history tell us over and over again that that isn’t true, but we still think it won’t happen to us. And when it does we are shocked, hurt, angry, and unforgiving . . . .
“There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us.” Dr. King was absolutely right. There is some good in the folks who did that evil to me back then, and there is definitely some evil in me in the way I’ve reacted to what they did. I may never completely know why they did what they did to me. However, it’s the propensity for evil in me that makes it so hard to forgive them. I keep looking for some kind of justice from having been left unemployed for over five years now that keeps getting mixed up with the forgiveness part. And I’m disappointed in the fact that some of those folks called themselves Christian and yet they were anything but Christian in what they allowed to happened to me. I went there to do a good job for them and it just didn’t matter. Another agenda was playing out, and I wasn’t a part of it. And my career got derailed as a result.
Those last few sentences were painful to write. Therein lies the reason it’s been so hard to forgive them and have it “stick.” It’s not that I haven’t forgiven them many times over in the past five plus years, but I still live with the consequences of what happened to me at their hands to this very day.
The truth is this . . . I liked each and every one of those people who did that damage to me at that job. I liked what I saw in my boss and with the others, too, when I was interviewed for that job. And I loved the environment and was looking forward to being a part of it. In fact, I was never as excited about any job in my entire life as I was about that particular job when I was offered it. While I was driving the 1000-mile trip to Houston with a moving truck loaded with all my possessions following a few hours behind me, I couldn’t have been more excited about this brand new opportunity in a new city in another state that I was heading to on I-10. And I never had even the slightest clue that what was about to unfold over the next seven months was going to happen to me. And why would I? I had almost twenty years of successful professional work experience in the field at the time I was hired for that job.
When I think back on the good times I had while I worked there (with other folks who worked in the same building outside of my own department), I regret that it didn’t work out. That may seem odd considering what I went through, but I don’t easily give up on people or things. I wanted to make it work out in the best way possible. I gave it everything that I had. And I am not a quitter. But it was bigger than me, and it had been going on long before I showed up. And stuff like this happens in workplaces all over America. I just never thought it would happen to me.
I can’t get Texas out of my system because I’m looking for reciprocity. I’m looking for a “two-way street” on forgiveness. Maybe I’m asking for the moon.
I have never hated anyone involved in what happened to me at that job. In fact, I liked all of them. I probably would still like them if they had given or would still give me half a chance again. I know that in the business world there is this really horrible but often said phrase that goes like this (see article in Forbes at this link by someone else who hates it):
“It’s not personal, it’s business.”
Well, I feel much like Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) in a scene between her and Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) in the movie “You’ve Got Mail” (1998) after his mega-bookstore ends up putting her small children’s bookstore out of business (see YouTube clip of scene available here):
Joe Fox: It wasn’t… personal.
Kathleen Kelly: What is that supposed to mean? I am so sick of that. All that means is that it wasn’t personal to you. But it was personal to me. It’s *personal* to a lot of people. And what’s so wrong with being personal, anyway?
Joe Fox: Uh, nothing.
I totally agree. There are too many brutal ways that people get fired in America today. The movie, “Up in the Air,” (2009) starring George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, a corporate “downsizer,” has classic examples of that sort of brutality. And if you don’t believe me, just ask anyone who’s ever been “pink slipped” through no fault of their own. There are plenty of folks out there from the past decade who have experienced it.
Debbie Macomber quotes a poem written by Reinhold Niebuhr on page 61 in her book mentioned above that talks about tracing love back to it’s final form–forgiveness. It goes like this:
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”
My trips back to Texas are done for now. If someone wants to invite me to go back there, I’m certainly open to going back, but my trips taken by myself with the hope of some sort of reconciliation or even to look for employment (after all, I’ve heard Texas is THE place to look for employment opportunities) are done.
For the past five plus years I’ve been trying to “develop and maintain the capacity to forgive” (as stated above by Dr. King). Truth is, if I were to run into my old boss or even the HR director or any of the others involved in my demise at that job in Houston, I’d invite them to lunch at my expense. While I’ve been unemployed all this time I wouldn’t trade the things I’ve learned over these past five plus years for a job paying five times (or even ten times) as much as they paid me. And what I have learned during this time has been worth every cent I didn’t make at the job I’ve never found since I was fired, and part of that “learning” has been written across the pages of my blog. And since truth is stranger than fiction, I have all of them to thank for that. We just never know where that silver lining is going to come from in the midst of difficult circumstances.
Offering forgiveness doesn’t come with any guarantees. That would be nice, but it doesn’t often happen. But when it does happen, it is truly a blessing for all parties concerned. However, even when it doesn’t happen and isn’t reciprocated, it is still a blessing to those who have learned to truly forgive others.
So if we’re in need of a lighter heart attitude . . .
Start with a check-up on who we haven’t forgiven . . .
And start there . . . .
YouTube Video: “Perfect World” by Huey Lewis and the News: