Published January 14, 2022
“Let us continue to hope, work, and pray that in the future we will live to see a warless world, a better distribution of wealth, and a brotherhood that transcends race or color” —Martin Luther King, Jr.
In a new religious biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., I discovered that soon after the Montgomery bus boycott, then-President Mordecai Wyatt Johnson of Howard University fought hard to get King to be dean of Howard’s School of Religion. After the creative and inspiring way he led a campaign that went from pursuing better treatment of black riders to striking a blow against segregation, schools, churches, and large nonprofits dangled many other lucrative offers before the young minister. And yet, King felt called to stay with his congregation and in the movement. Therein lies the new insight into King from Martin Luther King: A Religious Life. In his earliest writings in school and personal letters, King saw himself as a disciple and a servant.
From his first call to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to his last sermon before his death in Memphis, King went all in, never letting up on his pursuit of discipleship and servanthood. When people doubted the efficacy of his espousal of the love ethic as the answer to the evils of hate, racism, and segregation, King backed up his inspiring rhetoric with an unwavering commitment to the principle of nonviolent resistance to the violent injustice perpetrated against Black Americans. Many of King’s detractors, including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, sought to characterize King’s work as a self-serving grasp for power and notoriety. However, the truth of King’s health and finances confirms the testimonies of family, friends, and colleagues of a man wholly committed to service and self-subordination to the larger cause. And while countless, nameless unsung activists and citizens sacrificed their lives and livelihood for the cause of freedom with King, his unique voice, ministry, and nonviolent direct action convinced Black people to fight more fearlessly for their lives and white people to accept in principle, if not in practice, racial equality.
Before King became the King whose image and works have been “melted down into an image palatable to everyone and challenging to virtually no one,” he had a vision about the kind of world he wanted to see and his willingness to work for it. He wrote to his then-girlfriend, Coretta, who would become his wife, about his hope, work, and prayer for the future that he fought to make a reality throughout his public life in the struggle for Black freedom and equality. King never stop advocating for a warless world, equitable distribution of wealth, and racial equality and justice. Given who King has become in the cultural imagination, I hope we remember that his work and life echo all these many years later because he was a faithful, committed disciple and servant. On MLK Day, let’s honor King through our discipleship and service.