Dear Dr. King,
Every year, when the public observance of your birthday rolls around, it makes me smile. It reminds me of the many school years I shared my birthday week with you, sometimes with my special day falling on the very same day as yours, resulting in a holiday from school.
I felt a kinship with you from a young age because of this. In my mind, we always belonged together. Our lives were intertwined.
Only two years ago did your life began to make an impression on me for its own sake, though. I read a book and stumbled unsuspectingly on an idea that changed the whole course of my life. It’s an idea you know very well — that only love has the power to truly transform violence — and the book hailed you as one of its major proponents. Now, two years later, I know you weren’t merely its proponent. You were also its incarnation.
In that first year I encountered this new idea, I began to read your autobiography. There, I learned about the measure of a man required to embody such a hard and difficult truth. I learned about the bombings. The arrests. The attempts to subvert requests for justice. The cryptic phone calls. The fears. The brushes with death. And the masses of people you led through so many long and determined demonstrations of dignity.
So many aspects of your life mark me deeply now, but your faith is the brightest of them all. There is a moment in your autobiography that is forever sealed in my memory. I revisit it often in my mind. It was a turning-point moment for you, the bedrock foundation that forever sustained you in the long years of labor, conviction, promise, and hope ahead.
You know what moment I’m talking about, no doubt. Here it is in your own words:
One night toward the end of January I settled into bed late, after a strenuous day. Coretta had already fallen asleep and just as I was about to doze off the telephone rang. An angry voice said, “Listen, nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you; before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.” I hung up, but I couldn’t sleep. It seemed that all of my fears had come down on me at once. I had reached the saturation point.
I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. I had heard these things before, but for some reason that night it got to me. I turned over and I tried to go to sleep, but I couldn’t sleep. I was frustrated, bewildered, and then I got up.
Finally I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward.
I sat there and thought about a beautiful little daughter who had just been born. I’d come in night after night and see that little gentle smile. I started thinking about a dedicated and loyal wife, who was over there asleep. And she could be taken from me, or I could be taken from her.
And I got to the point that I couldn’t take it any longer. I was weak. Something said to me, “You can’t call on Daddy now, you can’t even call on Mama. You’ve got to call on that somethinng in that person that your Daddy used to tell you about, that power that can make a way out of no way.”
With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory: “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. 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 becaue if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak. The people 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.”
It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world.”
I tell you I’ve seen the lightning flash. I’ve heard the thunder roar. I’ve felt sin breakers dashing trying to conquer my soul. But I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me alone. At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeeared. I was ready to face anything.
Dr. King, there is a short list of people I name as personal heroes in my life, and it’s because of the entry above that you are on that list. You did so many remarkable things with your life. You paved a way where there had been no way before. And yet because of this moment you detailed above, you and I both know that it’s only because of Christ that those things ever happened through your life.
You remind me, Dr. King, that Christ is our strength and sustainer through all the dark moments, hours, and years that will meet someone walking this nonviolent path. You remind me that Christ is the light shed abroad in this world’s darkness, that Christ is the love radiating out from the center of our lives.
Christ is the reason I ever chose to walk this path in the first place, and your life reminds me of that. Thank you, Dr. King, for living your life in such a way that it challenges and teaches me, nearly 50 years later, how to live my own.
Happy birthday to you.
With great admiration, respect, and renewed kinship,