The National Civil Rights Museum is built inside the old Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Hanging from the balcony where King died is an enormous fresh flower wreath and alongside it, a plaque inscribed with a passage from the biblical story in Genesis of Joseph’s brothers plotting to get rid of him: “Here comes the dreamer. Come now, let us kill him … and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” (Gen. 37: 19-20)
The exhibits are arranged chronologically and begin in the century before King was born, but really take off with the movement to desegregate city buses in Montgomery, Alabama, which began when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat when a white man demanded it. The exhibit has an actual bus you can get on, with a white section in front, a Negro section in the back, and a statue of a black woman sitting down in the front. Rosa Parks is typically remembered as a woman too tired to get up. She was, in fact, a quiet and determined young woman, the secretary of the local NAACP, and strategically chosen to challenge bus segregation. The movement that followed was equally strategic in it planning.
Martin Luther King Jr, a newcomer in town, was the 26-year-old pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and elected leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association. He was more than ready for the challenge, having moved back to the South after his doctoral studies in Boston in order to be an agent of change. He devoted himself to the boycott:
- holding mass meetings
- conducting training in non-violence
- coordinating the million details associated with a protest that lasted more than a year
He said that what inspired him were the thousands of people who worked or carpooled everywhere they needed for 381 days. They walked and walked and walked. “My feet are tired,” said one elderly woman on her way to clean houses on the white side of town, “but my soul is at rest.”
The resistance to the bus boycott, as you know, was fierce:
- King’s home was bombed
- threats were made against his life and that of his wife and baby daughter
- others were harassed and beaten
- taxis were forbidden to pick up protesters
- and local companies cancelled the insurance of Negro car owners
Through it all, King kept an outward persona of calm and moral confidence, but the internal pressure must have been staggering. By the time the boycott was a month old, the Kings were receiving 30-40 threatening phone calls each day. One night, after he received a particularly vicious call, he paced the floors of his house wondering what to do. He went downstairs, made a cup of coffee, sat at the kitchen table and prayed:
“Lord, I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now, I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. Now, I am afraid. And I can’t let the people see me like this. They are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
In that lonely hour, King’s bible opened to 1st Samuel and he read the passage we have just heard and had, for the first time in his life, he said, a transcendent experience.
Now, Samuel was Hannah’s child, the one she conceived after having been barren so long. She had gone to the temple and prayed to be given the gift of a son, and Eli, the priest, saw her lips moving and the emotion in her prayer and took her for being drunk and shoo’d her along. But she explained that she had only been pouring her heart out to God that she conceive a son. And Eli had assured her she would. And she did. And she named him Samuel and lent him to God, vowing that he would be raised as a priest-in-training. And Eli took the boy under his wing as soon as he was weaned.
Eli, though a very old man, then, was like a father to Samuel. He had sons of his own, who also were in the temple business but they were corrupt. At one point God had spoken to Eli and assured him that his sons’ corruption would not go unpunished, nor would Eli’s laxity in permitting their corruption.
The back story helps us understand Samuel’s reluctance to reveal to Eli what he had learned, but also may have spoken to Martin Luther King Jr. about the consequences of trust in God – a life enriched and full of truth but not without its pains. He said that in that lonely night at the kitchen table, he heard the quiet assurance of God’s voice telling him to stand for righteousness and truth. That God would be with him.
This weekend our nation is pausing to remember a man who tried to tell us God’s truth. Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to identify God’s truth for us.
- What God wants, he said, is to expand the rights and responsibilities-of-community to those who have been excluded
- and to extend the reach of dignity to those who have been denied it.
Fifty years later we may say, “well, that’s obvious, a no-brainer!” But it wasn’t obvious in 1968 and perhaps, given our continued troubles of the past 6 months, it’s not obvious now either. It is a sometimes scary God-trusting brave thing to cross barriers, to reach out and seek to love the stranger. We can’t envision it and when we do, sometimes it can frighten us.
But that’s why Jesus’ “come and see” approach is so valuable. Jesus did not explain everything, clear everything up, or tell people what the future would hold. He simply said, “Come and see.”
- Come and see,
- act on what you wonder.
- God’s truth is not a riddle to be solved but a life to be lived, a thing done.
- I think it was Samuel Johnson who said that the business of life is drawing adequate conclusions from inadequate information. That is why the ‘come and see’ method is so essential. We discover great truth by acting on the little truths we already know.
Philip said that an un-credentialed carpenter from Nazareth was God’s Anointed One. Nathanael said, ‘I don’t know about that.’ But followed Philip’s advice to “come and see”. And he, too, became a follower of Jesus.
Martin Luther King said that community and dignity can stretch to include those to whom it has been denied. The people said, ‘I don’t know about that.’ But many went and saw and became convinced he was right.
Skepticism is often our default mode when big things are asked of us. Good. That’s good. That’s wise. But so is “come and see”. Check it out. Test it. See for yourself. That’s how we build from small truths to bigger ones. Or, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr.: take the first step in faith. You don’t need to tackle the whole staircase. Just take the first step based on what you know is true. Come and see.
Clayborne Carson, ed., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., New York: Warner Books, 1998.
Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, New York: Simon & Schuster, reprint ed., 1989.
, Pillar of Fire: American in the King Years 1963-1965, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.