The final lecture in the recent series I attended was an informative and fascinating study of the American Civil Rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King. The lecture was given by Professor Hilary Russell from John Moores University, Liverpool.
The Vicar began the evening by playing a clip from the movie ‘In the Heat of the Night”. The clip was very effective in explaining and depicting the relationship between the black man and his white counter-part in the American south in the early 60’s and possibly up to the present time in some places.
The Martin Luther King who arrived in Montgomery, Alabama in 1954 did not have civil rights activism on his agenda. Brought up in Atlanta, the son of the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, he had been educated at Boston University and was still working on his doctoral thesis in philosophical theology. The church he went to in Montgomery was proud of its access to the white establishment and, therefore, access to political power. The congregation may have hoped for an end to discrimination, but offered no challenge to the status quo.
Professor Russell picked three events to illustrate King’s spiritual journey and his evolving thinking.
Martin Luther King’s journey toward non-violent activism began with the arrest of Rosa Parks in December 1955 for refusing to sit in the back of the bus and give up her seat to a white man. The result of this refusal was a bus boycott by blacks. King became the President of the boycott group, the Montgomery Improvement Association. It was the first step toward becoming the leader of the Civil Rights Movement. The boycott continued for 382 days when King himself was arrested, abused and had his home bombed.
When King arrived in Montgomery he was not a pacifist; he believed the only solution would be armed revolt. However, during the bus boycott he had an intense spiritual experience in the midst of a period of great harassment and personal fear. While praying at his kitchen table, in the depths of despair, he experienced the presence of God as he never had before. His fears left him and he had new strength and resolve and he was now clearer about the real goal. Three days later he authorized his lawyer to challenge the segregation laws. “Segregation is evil and I cannot, as a minister, condone evil.” He was also determined to meet violence with non-violence and to resist pressure from others in the black community who were impatient for change.
The second experience came in 1963 from jail when King responded to a letter from white clergy in Birmingham, Alabama who took issue with King for being an ‘outsider’ causing trouble in the streets of Birmingham. In response, King wrote famously, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly... Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider...” When the clergy accused the civil rights movement of being extreme, King argued that Jesus and other heroes were extremists, “So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or love?”
In Part 2 I will discuss the “I have a dream” speech and my own personal reflections of that event.