Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) was born January 15, 1929, and grew up to become an American Baptist pastor and activist. He was the most visible spokesperson and leader in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s, advancing civil rights through nonviolence and civil disobedience.
On April 12, 1963, MLK was arrested after a series of coordinated marches and sit-ins against racism and racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. On the second day of MLKs imprisonment in a Birmingham jail, a guard slipped him a copy of the morning paper. By the dim light of his cell, King read the headline on the second page: WHITE CLERGYMEN URGE LOCAL NEGROES TO WITHDRAW FROM DEMONSTRATIONS. Eight Alabama pastors had penned a statement entitled “A Call for Unity” in which they expressed basic agreement with King regarding integration and Jim Crow, but took issue with his methods, arguing his peaceful protests and sit-ins represented the sort of “extreme measures” that only incited racial tensions. This appeal to “Christian unity” and “law and order and common sense” found resonance among many of Birmingham’s white Christians.
In response, Martin Luther King wrote his famous “Letter From The Birmingham Jail,” which, in many schools, has become a standard entry in freshman writing and rhetoric classes. His words are as relevant today as they were in 1963:
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not…the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace [at CCC we’ve identified this kind of behavior as the “false peace” of peacekeeping instead of peacemaking], which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action…Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection…We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
On October 14, 1964, MLK won the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance. In 1965, he helped organize two of the three Selma to Montgomery marches. In his final years, he expanded his focus to include opposition towards poverty and the Vietnam War.
On April 4, 1968, at 6:00 p.m. just outside Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, the 39-year-old King stood by the railing looking out over some rundown buildings just beyond Mulberry Street when James Earl Ray took aim with a .30 caliber rifle and blew away the right side of King’s face and neck. He was pronounced dead at St. Joseph’s Hospital an hour and five minutes later. The nonviolent voice against the rage of racism was gone. On this day of honoring MLK, we must ask why would a 39-year-old pastor who abhorred violence be killed in this way?
In addition to honoring the ministry and achievements of MLK, it is important for us to remember and to teach our children (and grandchildren) this essential history. MLK was assassinated during an angry and difficult time in American history—much like we are seeing today. JFK was assassinated in 1963; his brother RFK was assassinated just two months after MLK. Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965. And then there was the Vietnam War that lasted from the mid-’50s-1975. We were also living through the Cold War, a period of geopolitical tension between the Soviet Union and the United States and our respective allies, with regular threats of nuclear war. All of this seemed to culminate in 1974 when President Nixon was impeached. An upside of this awful season of American life was a legitimate revival of (mostly) young people, termed The Jesus Movement. I became a Jesus follower on July 21, 1974, having been caught up in the movement in Costa Mesa CA. I was fourteen years old when MLK and RFK were assassinated and twenty years old when I became a Christian. (We can only hope and pray that a revival will also be birthed out of this current season of anger and polarization.)
So, how can celebrate MLK Day?
1. Re-watch MLK’s I Have A Dream speech with your family and process what you hear…
- Talk with children about race year-round. MLK did not dream of a “colorblind” world in which we ignore the impact of race and racism, and children aren’t too young to have these dialogues. Honest talk about race should take place in homes and classrooms throughout the year, not just on MLK’s birthday.
- Talk to and about the people and groups who supported — and opposed — MLK’s work.
- Learn about movements that are continuing MLK’s non-violent legacy of civil rights. Too often, adults offer children tidy narratives about the civil rights movement that implies racism is mostly a thing of the past.
- Write a family letter to President-Elect Biden about racism. President-elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated two days after MLK’s birthday is observed. Talk to your children about what they want to see the president and other government leaders do to continue the fight against racism.
- Support black-, brown-, and immigrant-owned businesses in your community. Toward the end of his life, MLK’s work began to focus more on economic inequality. The night before he died, he gave a speech supporting the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, he called on Black Americans to boycott businesses with discriminatory hiring practices.
- Listen to some of the music of the civil rights movement. Along with stories, music is an excellent tool for not only learning about the civil rights movement but also experiencing a bit of what the movement was like.
- Listen to “Guide Me” performed by Ella Jenkins with members of the Urban Gateway’s Children’s Chorus.
- Imani Uzuri’s lessons and video performances of freedom songs.
- “I’m Gonna Let It Shine: A Gathering for Voices of Freedom” by various artists.
- “This Little Light of Mine” performed by Fannie Lou Hamer.
- Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Epic Challenge to the Church by Edward Gilbreath
- The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby
- Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith by Mae Elise Cannon, Lisa Sharon Harper, Troy Jackson, and Soong-Chan Rah
- The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll
- The Cross and the Lynching Treeby James Cone
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander