The MLK We Never Knew

If you really want to honor Martin Luther King Jr., don’t just take a day off. Take a day (or days) to read his words.

Our family had the rarest of treats on Saturday, October 12, 2019.

On Friday of that weekend, my daughter and I toured historic civil rights locations in the city of Birmingham. We then met my wife in Atlanta to do the same thing in that city on Saturday. And our tour guide was essentially a living history museum.

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16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, 2019. Four girls died at the      hands of white men, who bombed the church on  Youth Sunday,                                                               September 15, 1963.                                            It would take almost 40 years to convict the men who murdered these girls.

Dr. Albert Brinson is nine years younger than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He grew up right around the corner from the King family, and was a lifelong friend of both ministers, Senior and Junior.

He met us outside the old Ebenezer Baptist Church, on Jackson St. Northeast. He told us about being ordained in that church, by both of those great men. He shared with us the “insider’s deal” on Dr. King’s work and the knowledge that their lives were in danger at almost every moment.

It was a glorious day, and I am eternally grateful that my 19-year old daughter got to experience such an icon of humanity as Dr. Brinson. But with all that he shared on that day, a stark reality haunts me. It is a reality that few of us acknowledge, even as we “celebrate” on every third Monday of January.

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Dr. Brinson with Abbie at Gardner-Webb University, MLK Day 2015.
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Dr. Brinson with Abbie and Tracy, outside Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta.

We do not know Martin Luther King Jr. For most of us, especially white folk, maybe we never did, or never will. And the further we move away from April 4, 1968, the less understanding we have.

Most of the United States commemorates MLK Day. Perhaps we attend a local event, or participate in some activity of service, or post some nice quotes on social media. In reality, it is likely that we enjoy a long weekend.

Even in the best and most noble of these activities, we really do not get to the heart of Dr. King’s message. Our glorious time with Dr. Brinson brought that home to me. He shared a side of MLK Jr. and his family that most people never have a chance to experience, and there is only one solution to this problem.

Read.

Literacy is the only way we can truly understand and appreciate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy. We must dig much deeper than the phrase “I have a dream” or our little blurbs on Facebook. The quotes might indeed be excellent. But they are a fraction of what we need to know about the man, his work, his leadership, and his brilliant Christian sacrifice.

Many of us can only have a peripheral understanding of the struggle for Civil Rights and the tremendous personal sacrifice required to undertake that struggle. Reading the Reverend’s words will not put you in his shoes, not by a longshot. But it can get you a lot closer to understanding how those shoes might have felt on his feet.

If you really want to honor and appreciate the teachings and example of this man, then let his words soak into your soul and move your spirit. He is remarkably consistent in his message, and it will not take many readings for that message to become clear.

Be advised that understanding the message does not make the medicine go down any better. White privilege can be a difficult pill to swallow. Active, organized, non-violent resistance is challenging, perhaps life-threatening.  Loving those who hate you is hard. Defeating ideology rather than beating down a person sounds like an impossible ideal.

And finally, King’s message that serving on behalf of justice for others requires “great suffering and sacrifice” is one that we rarely want to hear. Serving through good deeds is nice, but serving sacrificially demands a greater commitment that many of us have never had to make.

We cannot do this simply through nice quotes. It takes more than just collecting canned goods, signing a petition, or filling out a donation pledge. It requires deep commitment and understanding, the kind that Dr. Brinson offered to our family as he provided us a living history of the movement and the King family.

However, that was a rare treat, one that is far too rare in the late days of the lives of those who led the original quest. A time is coming—and is indeed here again—when we will have to decide if we are truly ready to “suffer and sacrifice” for the “dignity of all human personality.” The more we know about how hard it was to fight that battle in 1963, the better prepared we will be to take a stand in 2020.

While I would never discourage anyone from taking a day to serve others above self, understanding how to serve and why we serve is an equally critical and valuable use of your time. Cracking a spine or searching out a PDF of Dr. King’s words and speeches is a vital step in the right direction.

We have plenty of people who enjoy seeing their faces on the news or social media, who will gladly tell us what Dr. King would have said or would have thought if he were here today.

Let’s dispense with the self-serving speculation and guessing, shall we?

Instead, find out what Martin Luther King Jr. actually did, and said, and advocated.

Read.

Learn.

Act.

And do these in the true Spirit that Dr. King advocated as “the only enduring power in the world…”

Agape love.

And if you don’t know what Agape Love means, go back and start at the top of the list.

One final note: Many point out to me that Martin Luther King Jr. sermons and speeches are readily available on YouTube or other outlets, where you can watch and/or hear.

There are few voices in the world that will give a person goosebumps like Dr. King offering a message. However, I strongly recommend reading his speeches and writings! As powerful as his spoken word is, the writings embed his Christian ideals into the heart and mind, while illustrating the brilliant, consistent message of love in Christ that he illuminates.

Suggested Starters

Non-Violence and Racial Justice

Our Struggle

The Power of Non-Violence

Letter from Birmingham City Jail

 

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