Martin Luther King, Jr. Taught Us How To Harness The Power Of Passion
The FIFTH in a Series of FIVE Essays Celebrating Black History Month
Most Christians hear a lot about what we are supposed to love. But did you know the Bible talks about what we are supposed to hate? When was the last time you heard a sermon on hate? Sounds crazy, right? But in order to have passion, we have to love what is right and hate what is wrong. Martin Luther King had both. And those ignited a passion in him that helped change the world. Here is his remarkable story…
Ever heard of Michael King, Jr.? Well, that was the given name of Martin Luther King, Jr. until his father, being so inspired by the life of Martin Luther, changed his young son’s name when he was six years old. One has to wonder if changing his namre was a harbinger of things to come. Like the Martin Luther that lived half a millennium before, Martin Luther King, Jr. would take up a righteous cause against an imposing system and, for the sake of common people everywhere, fight that system and change the world.
King was the middle of three children. As the son of a minister, he was active in his father’s church. At first, it was not preaching that interested him but music. It was no doubt the influence of his mother, an accomplished organist and choir leader, which spurred his participation in the choir.
Ironically, his church choir sang at the 1939 Atlanta premiere of the movie, “Gone with the Wind,” another sign of things to come. Like the movie, his life would be caught at the center of two colliding worldviews; one from the South seeking to preserve its cultural institutions and the other from the North, trying unite a divided nation.
Like most blacks in the south, King was a victim of legalized racism and systematic segregation of the post-Civil war south. Jim Crow laws made it illegal for blacks and whites to associate, keeping racial lines sharply drawn and segregation a matter of law. One lasting impression of racial inequality that was especially painful for King happened after he had won an oratorical contest. On the bus trip back to Atlanta, he and his teacher were ordered to stand so white patrons could take their seats. King later said that this incident made him the angriest he had ever been in his life.
Anger and passion are not the same. Passion is a combination of what a person loves and what they hate. Simply feeding hatred without identifying an equally strong love for something else will create anger, indeed, but not passion. King needed more than anger towards injustice, he also needed a love to pursue. His love for learning provided the ingredient that completed his passion.
As a student, King excelled. Attending Booker T. Washington High School, he became known for his scholastic and speaking abilities. His academics were so advanced, in fact, that he skipped the 9th and 12th grades, entering Morehouse College at age 15. In 1948, he graduated Morehouse and earned his postgraduate degree from Crozer Theological Seminary three years later. In 1955, he earned his Ph.D from Boston University. During this time, he married Coretta Scott. They had four children together, Yolanda, Martin Luther King II, Dexter and Bernice.
King’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement took shape when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She was subsequently arrested. One can’t help but think that perhaps this event triggered those painful memories when he, as an accomplished student, was ordered to relinquish his seat by a bus driver.
King took a leadership role in Montgomery and helped organize the famous bus boycott. African American citizens in Montgomery refused to ride city buses for months. King's house was bombed during the boycott and he was later arrested for leading peaceful protests. The boycott ended with federal courts ending racial segregation on all Montgomery public buses. King's role catapulted him into the national spotlight and gave him a platform as a spokesman for the civil rights movement.
Fully kindled, King’s passion compelled him to challenge systematic racism in the south, much like his namesake, Martin Luther did in his generation. Who could have known that a single young voice in a church choir, anonymously singing gospel songs as movie stars paraded past photographers and adoring fans, would one day be the voice of justice for an entire generation? Like it was portrayed onscreen that night, an old way of life was dying and a new day was dawning.
But not everyone celebrated this new day!
In April 1963, Martin Luther King led a campaign against segregation and racial injustice in the city of Birmingham, Alabama. During the protests, the Birmingham Police Department used high-pressure water jets and police dogs against protesters. The images of this brutality were published across the United States in countless newspapers and magazines, heightening public awareness to the plight of black Americans in the south.
Perhaps King’s crowning achievement took place in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963. It was there that King delivered a 17-minute discourse that later became known as the "I Have a Dream" speech. It is considered by many to be one of the greatest speeches of all time. Part of that speech says,
“I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day 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.' I have a dream 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. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.”
On October 14, 1964, King received the Nobel Peace Prize for nonviolent resistance to racial inequality and legalized segregation. In 1965, he helped organize the Selma to Montgomery marches, focusing on voting rights. Organization for the march was solidified when King defied a judge’s order and preached at Brown Chapel in Selma.
On March 29, 1968, King went to Memphis, Tennessee, in support of black municipal workers. His flight had been delayed because of a bomb threat. Pondering his own mortality, in what was to be the final speech of his life, King said,
“We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will.
“And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.
“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.”
On April 4, 1968, at 6:01 pm, standing on a second floor balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed by James Earl Ray. It seems from the words of King’s final speech, he was perhaps sensing the day of his departure was approaching. Maybe his words reflect those of Paul the Apostle when he said,
“For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.” II Timothy 4:6-8
King’s legacy is alive and well today as an American icon and hero. In light of his life, consider these questions:
- What inspires you the most about Martin Luther King’s Life?
- What was the “dream” Martin Luther King spoke about?
- What can you do, as an individual, to continue fulfilling that dream?
- What role does the church play in fulfilling Martin Luther King’s dream?
- Identify your passion by examining what you hate and what you love.
- What can you do to turn these passions into actions?