Today, we celebrate the birthday of one of my heroes: Dr. Martin Luther King, a Christian leader who through non-violent methods ignited and carried the Civil Rights movement until he was shot and killed in 1968. A few years ago, I became fascinated with the Civil Rights movement, which led me, of course, to study the life of King. Probably the best book out there on King’s life is David Garrow’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography, Bearing the Cross. I devoured this book and then starting listening to and reading King’s sermons, and this is when I really began to respect the Civil Rights leader. This may be a bold statement, especially in light of all the amazing communicators in the church today, but in my opinion, no one comes close to the rhetorical power and creativity of King. Of all the preachers I’ve listen to in the last 17 years, King is at the top of my list. He was a master orator and a connoisseur of language. Tethered to a passion for equality and justice, King’s voice was a divinely created agent of redemption. If you’ve never listened to King, here are the last few words of his so-called “Mountain top” sermon, which he preached the night before he was killed.
But my absolute favorite piece written by King (sermons included) is this section in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail (April 16th, 1963). King followed Jesus’ non-violent approach to peace, so he would often wind up behind bars. On one particular occasion, some white Christian leaders, who were otherwise in support of King and his movement, thought that he was moving too fast and that he should slow down and “wait.” Wait for the right time to end segregation. I’ll leave you with King’s response. It nearly brought me to tears when I first read it.
Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.