Martin Luther King and Seeking Justice Through Love
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the seminal event that launched the civil rights movement and thrust an unknown 26-year-old minister named Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., into national prominence. As our nation remembers him on this special day, we do so fully aware that his was a voice crying out sometimes in the wilderness, but always with conviction, and he still has much to teach us.
When Rosa Parks was arrested in December 1955 for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama, several thousand members of the black community there met and passed a resolution calling on every citizen regardless of race, color, or creed to refrain from riding the buses until the segregated system was ended. Then the community, perhaps guided by the hand of Providence, turned to the young Dr. King, a newcomer to Montgomery who had earned his doctorate in systematic theology only months before, and asked him to lead the civil rights struggle.
In accepting the position, Dr. King touched on principles that would mark the rest of his days – and should guide us also – perseverance in seeking justice, solidarity, nonviolence, faith in God, and the love of Jesus Christ. “I want to say that in all of our actions, we must stick together. Unity is the great need of the hour,” he said. Most importantly, “in all of our doings, in all of our deliberations here this evening and all of the week and while – whatever we do – we must keep God in the forefront. Let us be Christian in all of our actions.”
Dr. King understood that the work of social justice is long, requiring the virtue and spiritual gift of patience. Not the false patience of inaction, passivity and silence in the face of wrong that some people called for, but the true patience of level-headed determination and trust in God that refuses to be drawn into impulsive anger and animosity.
Despite the personal difficulties it imposed on them, Montgomery’s black residents showed remarkable resolve and solidarity in observing the boycott under Dr. King’s leadership, which lasted until the end of 1956, after U.S. Supreme Court ruled this form of segregation unconstitutional. Meanwhile, a carpool system was organized so people could get to work and black taxi drivers carried passengers for minimal cost. Others simply walked, refusing to go along with the injustice of segregation.
We can take inspiration from these early days of the civil rights movement as we confront the issues of injustice today, such as the treatment of those on the margins, violations of religious freedom, lingering racial tensions in our country, and the threats to human life and dignity that will draw hundreds of thousands of people to our nation’s capital this week to pray and march for justice. Their legacy of working together reminds us that we are each responsible for building a truly good and just society.
In this work – and in life in general – we especially need God. At his young age, Dr. King understood this profoundly. “The problems of life will begin to overwhelm you; disappointments will begin to beat upon the door of your life like a tidal wave. And if you don’t have a deep and patient faith, you aren’t going to be able to make it,” he taught, adding, “I know this from my own experience.”
As leader of this movement, Dr. King was targeted for intimidation and violence. He was arrested and jailed on specious charges and repeatedly threatened. When he began to falter from the burden, he turned to God in prayer. Later, Dr. King would describe what happened next: “I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No, never alone,” then he added this counsel to the rest of us, “Don’t be a fool. Recognize your dependence on God. As the days become dark and the nights become dreary, realize that there is a God who rules above.”
One of those dark nights was January 30, 1956, when a bomb exploded on the porch of the King family home. As a large crowd formed, ready to retaliate, it was Dr. King’s faith in Jesus that led him to ask the people to put away their weapons and speak of responding instead with love. “We are not advocating violence,” he said. “We want to love our enemies. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them.”
The justice Dr. King sought would be gained not by force, but by love, explaining at that first meeting establishing the bus boycott, “Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love.” Implicit in this is the spiritual mercy of admonishing wrongdoers, offering the voice of conscience that urges them to turn to the good for their sake as well as others.
In a culture where racism was rampant and devaluing others the order of the day, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King quietly, forcefully, without violence and always faithful to the Gospel, did not seek to conquer, but to convert, to change the hearts of the oppressors. The legacy he leaves to us, the lessons we gain from his life and ministry, is one that reflects the presence of God’s kingdom in this world, even amidst all the challenges and hardships of the human condition.