On this Martin Luther King Day, I find myself thinking about King the man – not the icon, not the heroic visage on a marble monument, not the object of fawning paeans from pandering politicians.
I gained new insights into Dr. King’s humanity last fall on the Living Legacy Pilgrimage to key sites of the civil rights movement. The tour helped me see that King was not some larger-than-life savior destined for greatness, but just a man – a man plagued by doubts and insecurities who was thrust into the raging currents of history almost in spite of himself. And finally, a man who achieved greatness by overcoming the demons of despair and forging ahead despite a growing awareness that he was quite likely to be martyred in the cause.
Our tour bus followed U.S. 80 from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama – the same route followed by the famous voting-rights march that King led in 1965. On the way we passed through Lowndes County, whose large black population had been so thoroughly disenfranchised by 1965 that not a single African-American was registered to vote. As we neared Montgomery we stopped at the granite marker memorializing Viola Liuzzo, the white Detroit housewife who ventured south to help the voting-rights campaign only to be gunned down on the highway by Ku Klux Klansmen hours after the march.
In Montgomery we toured the modest parsonage of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where King and his young family lived in the mid-1950s. The small bungalow is furnished as it was then, with a vintage manual typewriter and portable phonograph in his study and an upright piano in the living room where his wife Coretta played.
Dexter’s deacons were looking for some peace, quiet and stability after the tumultuous pastorate of Rev. Vernon Johns, a fiery activist, when they chose King, the cerebral 26-year-old son of a prominent Atlanta minister, to succeed Johns. But the deacons’ hopes for tranquility were soon dashed when King was tapped to lead the Montgomery bus boycott against the city’s segregated buses. At the invitation of our tour guide, Shirley Cherry, I sat at the dining room table where King and his lieutenants plotted strategy for the boycott, which ultimately broke the back of the Jim Crow bus system in one of the movement’s key early victories.
There’s a small crater in the floor of the parsonage’s front porch, a remnant of a terrorist bombing by local segregationists in retaliation for the bus boycott. Ms. Cherry told us that after the bombing, an angry, armed crowd of African-Americans gathered in front of the house, vowing vengeance. King, a lifelong student and practitioner of the nonviolent activism pioneered by Mohandas Gandhi in India, calmed the crowd and sent them home. At the height of the tensions over the boycott, Ms. Cherry told us, the parsonage received 30 to 40 telephoned bomb threats a day. King told the callers in a quiet voice that he would pray for them.
Sitting at the Formica kitchen table one night after receiving one of those phoned bomb threats, King faced a moment of personal crisis, Ms. Cherry told us. In his despair he cried out to God, “I think I’m doing the right thing, but I’m losing courage.” He said later that God restored his strength by assuring him that he wasn’t alone.
In the middle of the kitchen table is a vase of plastic red carnations. Ms. Cherry said King typically sent real flowers to Coretta when he was on the road, but when he went to Memphis in support of a sanitation workers’ strike in 1968, he sent her a plastic bouquet instead. When she asked him why, he said he wanted to give her something she could keep – a sign that he had a premonition of his imminent assassination.
Later on our tour, we visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, which incorporates the room where King stayed at what was then the Lorraine Motel. Across the street, visitors can look out the window of the boarding-house room from which King’s assassin James Earl Ray fired the fatal shot.
In his last speech, the night before he was killed, King made clear that he feared his time was short. But he seemed to have made peace with the prospect. “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place,” he said. “But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
I think it’s safe to say we still haven’t gotten to the Promised Land – not when the nation is still plagued by the racial hatred, economic inequality and militarism against which King preached. We have much work to do, if we can muster only a fraction of the courage he found within himself.
More to come.