Dr. King didn’t do everything

Recollecting the Spirit's work through, not to, the man and the movement unfolding still

Ken Sehested

      We miss the significance of the Civil Rights Movement if we attribute everything to Dr. King. In fact, if one studies the record carefully, it is amazing to note that most of the major Civil Rights Movement campaigns were actually initiated by others. And King was initially resistant to many of the projects in which he became involved.

      The Montgomery Bus Boycott is a good case in point. It was Rosa Parks, a seamstress, who ignited that episode.

      It was E.D. Nixon, a railroad porter, who accomplished much of the initial strategy to make Rosa Parks’ case a legal test. And when the group of prominent African American ministers gathered to discuss what to do, it was Nixon (an “ordinary” layperson) who shamed them into having the courage to go public with the plan.

      It was Jo Ann Robinson, president of the Montgomery (Black) Women’s Political Council, who first suggested the idea of a bus boycott. She and her WPC co-leaders literally stayed up all night mimeographing leaflets to inform the Black community of the boycott plans and urge their compliance.

      Dr. King was chosen as the first president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (the boycott organization’s name) not because of his seniority or political standing within the ranks of the city’s African-American clergy. Just the opposite—he was the “new kid on the block,” 26 years old and politically unaligned, one who stood a better chance of uniting a legendary fractious group of preachers. Oddly enough, part of his inherited history at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was its previous pastor’s unsuccessful attempt at just such a boycott. At that point King himself was hardly a mature proponent of non-violence. Not long after the boycott got underway and violence by whites came unleashed, an out-of-town guest at his home nearly sat down on a pistol lying in the chair.

      A lot of things that succeeded in the Civil Rights Movement shouldn’t have. An earlier bus boycott attempt in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, lasted a couple weeks before it fell apart. The famous lunch counter “sit-in” movement, which took off after student efforts in Greensboro, NC, was undertaken without the blessing or even advance knowledge of any national organization and lacked any ongoing strategy plans. In fact, it has been attempted earlier in Oklahoma City with no success. The notorious “Freedom Riders” were first commissioned by the Congress on Racial Equality, a northern-based organization nourished to life by the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

      King’s well-known Letter From a Birmingham City Jail was first drafted by hand in the margins of a newspaper smuggled into prison, and King’s initial motivation for writing it was a combination of anger and self-pity at being repudiated by moderate-liberals in both the White and Black communities. It would be a month before any major publication would consider it worthy of printing.

      The 1963 historic “March on Washington” was the brainchild of A. Philip Randolph, head of the powerful Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union. Only one major newspaper mentioned King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, one which we now remember together with Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” (Though it should be recalled that eye-witness reporters thought little of Lincoln’s speech either.)

      Only a handful of King’s major engagements were planned in advance. In most, he simply found himself to be the right person at the right time in the right place. Even his last engagement—supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis—created enormous conflict between him and his top leadership circle, which felt the Memphis struggle to be a drain on precious time needed for the Poor People’s Campaign preparation. He went anyway.

      All this is not to undermine his importance, but to set it in perspective. We remember him not because of a unique moral character or extraordinary political savvy. Surely there were deep currents of courage, conviction, compassion and intelligence streaming through his soul. But other, less heralded individuals shared in those qualities and had their lives taken from them with equal tragedy and zero publicity.

      Fundamentally, we celebrate King’s life and legacy as a means of celebrating God’s continued movement in human affairs.

      We recall the narratives of King’s life for the same reasons we recall those biblical figures, like Noah (despite his drunken escapade), like Moses (even though he was a murderer), like King David (even though he was both an adulterer and a murderer), and like the Apostle Peter (despite his repeated and cowardly denial of his association with Jesus) and the Apostles John and James (despite their pompous argument over which would occupy the more prestigious seat in the Kingdom of God).

Left: Youth from Circle of Mercy Congregation (Asheville, NC) at the Martin Luther King Center in Havana, Cuba, standing in front of a portrait of Dr. King. The Center, created in 1988, grew out of the vision of Rev. Raúl Suárez, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Havana, and is housed next door to the congregation.

      The Bible is full of stories about flawed people—some of them outright scoundrels—whom God chose to use with spectacular results. Few deserve their place in our memory on grounds of personal moral stature or heroic will.

      The seeming coincidence of King being the right person in the right place at the right time echoes the biblical story of Esther, who, for highly unlikely reasons, became queen of Persia and Media just in time to save the Jewish people from genocide. In urging Esther to speak up, Mordecai offered this thought: “And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14b).

       The gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12) are not for padding personal résumés. They are for the sake of the community, for building the Body and for healing Creation. The popular notion of extra "stars" in one's "heavenly crown" for exemplary achievement contradicts not just the purpose of God but the very character of God as well. You don't know jack!

      Martin Luther King Jr. was one (however improbable and regardless of personal worthiness) who came “for such a time as this.”

      Diane Nash, one of the many unheralded leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, states it well:

      “If people think that it was Martin Luther King’s movement, then today they—young people—are more likely to say, ‘gosh, I wish we had a Martin Luther King here today to lead us.’ If people knew how that movement started, then the question they would ask themselves is, 'What can I do?’”

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Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org
A version of this article first appeared as the "Epilogue" to Sehested's edited book,
Dreaming God’s Dream: Study Materials for Church Home and School: Learning-based activities for Six Age Groups," published in 1989 by the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.