One of the great inspirations of my life was Martin Luther King, Jr. He was one of the first biographies I studied as an adult. I had just returned to church after a sixteen year hiatus and I was very much a pacifist. He taught me that being non-violent can be powerful.
I was surprised to learn that he was only fifteen when he graduated from high school. I don’t think this is ever mentioned when his legacy is discussed. M.L. King was gifted. He was gifted intellectually, but also spiritually. Most educators will not consider spirituality because it is hard to measure, but we all know the spiritual gifts when we see them. Spirituality is such an individual experience people often don’t want to talk about it. Certainly serving others, feeding and caring for the poor, standing up for those who have no power, loving others, and having a rich intrapersonal life are spiritual. King had all of those.
A young black man from the South, he became a Baptist minister after completing his education. Slavery had ended generations ago, but black people were still held in contempt by much of the society and were expected to be tolerant of mistreatment. Even in the North, blacks were shut out of good housing and good jobs. King believed in non-violent protest as a means to change society for the better. He and his colleagues on the board of NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) began to support the smaller movements in the South, led by the black citizens of the community.
This led to a greater recognition of the need for change. Inspired by Jesus Christ, Gandhi, and Thoreau, King believed that the only way to defeat violence was through peaceful protest. He was a leader in the Montgomery bus boycott and went on to lead the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, speaking throughout the country.
The politicians who advocated white supremacy were very threatened by the thought that black people would have equal rights. They might be voted out of office. They might have to submit to a black policeman, or their children might have a black teacher. The only way they knew to crush the blacks that tried to speak up was through violence. However, King so inspired young people of all colors, they chose to travel to the South from all over the country, and risk their lives in order to support him. Busloads of protesters of all colors arrived until the jails were overflowing. Some even gave their lives to fight for the rights of Negroes in the South. A church bombing led to the deaths of three little girls. This brought attention to the movement and fueled a march on Washington. Schools and restaurants were integrated. The Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, followed by fair housing laws. These continue to protect people from unfair treatment, when the laws are enforced. King received the Nobel Prize on October 14, 1964.
King was not perfect. He struggled with depression and had a weakness for women. His ideals, however, are guiding lights for us to follow. King was murdered, but his words live on in his writings. My favorite quote is “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”