This Sunday and on January 17, the nation celebrates the work and life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His life’s work as a pastor led him to a path that he nor anyone else could have imagined. Growing up in an intellectual African American community where he learned Greek and Latin as a teenager, he was admitted to the historic Morehouse College at age 15, at 22, graduated from the Crozier, the only integrated Seminary in the U.S., and earned a Ph.D. from Boston University when he was only 26. After finishing his classes but not yet having defended his Ph.D. thesis, he accepted a call to be the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He was only 25 years old.
When Dr. King accepted his call to Dexter Avenue church, it was clear he had no clue as to the current of history that was waiting to wash over him. However, if we examine his acceptance speech, we can see why God and history chose him. In his short 15 years of work, he has left a legacy of non-violence resistance for social change that will be remembered in the annuals of history.
In his acceptance speech to the call by the Dexter Avenue church, he said, “I have no pretense to being a great preacher or even a profound scholar.” But his sermons from pulpits expounding on the Word of God, explaining the heart of God, and laying bare to the world the truth of injustice of racism, moved nations of people to seek freedom for all, sacrifice themselves to work for justice, and make a world a better place for others. He gave hope to those who were oppressed and denied their dignity. His writings have been studied for more than half a century by those working to make their world more just and equitable. His letters, such as The Letter from Birmingham Jail, are still cited as the moral foundation for challenging complacency, blind peace, and false unity.
He went on to say, “I certainly have no pretense to infallibility – that is reserved for the height of the divine rather than the depth of the human.” What we saw was the humility of the man who was honest with himself. His humility enabled him to focus on working for others without taking on the accolades upon himself. All honors that were lauded on him were always shared evenly with those who worked together tirelessly, and the glory of their accomplishments was always mutually shared with the people whose suffering prompted his service.
He explained his motive for ministry by saying, “I come to you with only the claim of being a servant of Christ, and a feeling of dependence on his grace for my leadership. I come with a feeling that I have been called to preach and to lead God’s people.” His willingness to serve others enabled him to be accepted as the leader by the people. His humility made him the great leader that history remembers. Many became leaders seeking personal glory and undeserved accolades, but scriptures tell us that they are like grass that will die and breath that will disappear. The only honor that will remain in the humility with which we serve.
Dr. King uttered these words in May of 1954, and history came and found him in December of 1955. When Ms. Rosa Parks refused to be denigrated once again by being forced to give up her seat on the bus, Dr. King, as the 26-year-old minister, led the development of a bold plan that will give honor to the working poor who were forced to endure the systemic racism of the segregated public transportation system. As history has recorded, 13 months later, the Supreme Court declared the segregation on buses unconstitutional in the U.S. However, Dr. King never forgot and gave credit to the Women’s Political Council of Birmingham, who first called for the end to the segregated bussing in 1946.
His humility of recognizing that he is a part of a long line of justice-minded, righteousness-driven, and morally based calls for social transformation made him the great leader admired by people around the world. During his short 14 years of ministry, he gave thousands of speeches, got arrested multiple times, wrote many letters, and gave hope to millions of people. It was hope for not only those who were experiencing oppression but also those who saw and wanted to change the oppressive systems of their nations.
On this MLK weekend, I am reflecting his humility and his greatness. We remember a humble leader who served his God and his people, focusing on the people whom he was serving and not his reputation, the accolades that can come his way, or the wealth he can amass as a leader. His humility made him great, and we are better people for it.