A 2011 post about Martin Luther King Jr. sparked our recent Church Communication Heroes series, where we explore historical figures who inspire us today. In celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day it seemed only appropriate to explore King’s life in more detail as a church communication hero. This is the second in a three-part series. You can also check out yesterday’s The Words of MLK.
“One of the great tragedies of life is that men seldom bridge the gulf between practice and profession, between doing and saying.” -Martin Luther King Jr.
One of the greatest lessons of Martin Luther King Jr. is that he took action. He didn’t hide behind a pulpit, content to lob platitudes on his parishioners. He did something.
- Sparked by Rosa Parks’ stand against Jim Crow laws, King led the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. Some 90 leaders, including King, were indicted during the boycott but they turned themselves in as an act of defiance. “I was proud of my crime,” King said. “It was the crime of joining my people in a nonviolent protest against injustice.”
- On Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, Alabama state troopers attacked civil rights demonstrators with tear gas, billy clubs and charging horses as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. King wasn’t present at that march, but stated, “If I had any idea that the state troopers would use the kind of brutality they did, I would have felt compelled to give up my church duties altogether to lead the line.” He was there two days later to lead a ceremonial march and then again two weeks later when the march resumed with the protection of a court order.
- In 1966 King and fellow civil rights icon Ralph Abernathy moved into the slums of Chicago to demonstrate their support and empathy for the poor. They marched against segregation in housing policies and during one march were met by a jeering crowd throwing rocks, bottles and firecrackers. King was hit in the head by a rock, one of 30 injured. His response: “I have to do this—to expose myself—to bring this hate into the open.”
But taking action is never easy. King was arrested 29 times. His house was bombed. His life was threatened repeatedly, and he was ultimately murdered.
It’s one thing to communicate a message. But a message needs to be backed by action. We can’t call people to love their neighbors while we sit back doing nothing. The lesson from Martin Luther King Jr. is that he didn’t just communicate his message, but he worked to bring it about. It’s the example of his life and a challenge he laid at the door of the church:
“The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority. If the church does not participate actively in the struggle for peace and for economic and racial justice, it will forfeit the loyalty of millions and cause men everywhere to say that it has atrophied its will. But if the church will free itself from the shackles of a deadening status quo, and, recovering its great historic mission, will speak and act fearlessly and insistently in terms of justice and peace, it will enkindle the imagination of mankind and fire the souls of men, imbuing them with a glowing and ardent love for truth, justice, and peace. Men far and near will know the church as a great fellowship of love that provides light and bread for lonely travelers at midnight.”
In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King expressed his disappointment at the moderate Christians who condemned the violence that erupted out of the Civil Rights Movement:
“All too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”
May that not be us.