Today, we honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life-long devotion to the advancement of civil rights led to the end of institutionalized Jim Crow across the American South.
Dr. King was not the first to dream of an America where people would be judged on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. He was not the first to march, and he was not the first to protest.
Dr. King’s approach of non-violent resistance, civil disobedience dates back to the efforts of Melvin Tolson at Wiley College in Marshall, Tex., in the mid 1930s. From Tolson’s efforts, sharecroppers unionized, and one of his pupils at Wiley went on to found the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). For what it’s worth, the approach of civil disobedience dates back to an essay by Henry David Thoreau written in the 1840s.
Dr. King was not the first to dream, nor was he the first to act. So, why was his movement the first to effect tangible change? How did Dr. King’s movement transform the nation?
The answer lies in his heart.
The heart of Dr. King, from which his plans for the civil rights movement were built, was laid out in a sermon he preached at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., on November 17, 1957. In his sermon, titled, “Love Your Enemies,” Dr. King explained that the darkness from anger sparked by racial injustice could not drive out the darkness of the racism itself, that only light could drive out darkness.
Dr. King explained the concept of love, what it means to love your enemies, and that love has a redemptive power. Redemption, it means to free one from the bonds of sin. To redeem your enemies means to convert them and to bring them over to your side. The concept is rooted in the Gospel.
Dr. King loved America, and wanted to see America redeemed from it’s racial injustice. To do this, Dr. King trusted the Lord’s word to love his enemies. His entire movement was built on his faith.
The concept of love and redemption carried over into his work in the early 1960s, highlighted by his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. In that speech, Dr. King explained how his faith continued to motivate his work:
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, 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. 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.
Dr. King understood that his dream may not be fully realized during his life, or even during this world, but that one day, the Lord would return, and then his dream would be realized. He encouraged others in this faith, noting that unjust suffering had a redemptive quality.
Dr. King continued his work, influencing the passage of key legislation and the changing of attitudes. He left a legacy, not only of dedication, but of success.
However, Dr. King’s faith was never more evident than when he gave his famous “Mountain Top Speech,” in which he drew a parallel with Moses, saying that God had allowed him to go to the mountain top, and see the promised land.
Whether Dr. King had a mountain top experience heading into Memphis in 1968, or whether he had always worked with the knowledge that he would not see his dream fulfilled in his lifetime, he lived with the faith that God would bring that dream about.
For Dr. King, his dream was tangible, and would certainly come to pass, because his faith had made it real. As he concluded his final public address, he stated:
And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!
Even so, come Lord Jesus.
What empowered Dr. King’s dream, his work and his activism was his faith. His faith that this cause was in line with God’s will. His faith was so strong that his dream and cause were tangible, which is what faith does, according to Hebrews 11:1.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., transformed America, not only by showing us the sin of racial injustice and spurring us to repentance, but also by demonstrating the power of a life lived by faith.
We may not transform a nation, or subdue a kingdom, but if we live our lives by our faith in the Lord, we too can see powerful things happen.
To live this faith, we must first have faith in the Lord, trust that He exists and that He receives those who come to Him for salvation. Then, we must trust that the Lord loves and does what’s best for us. The final piece is a trust in the Lord’s plan, and a willingness to move into line with God’s plan.
These are the ingredients to a life of faith, and Dr. King is a prime example of what can happen when one lives by faith. That’s why Dr. King’s dream was a righteous dream, and why his movement was so effective.