During my first year at OES I had a second grade student excitedly approach me during recess and say, “Hey are you related to Dr. King? He’s famous!” I remember the ensuing conversation well. I asked why the student would think that I was related to Dr. King. The student responded that I was black like Dr. King and I had the same last name. I explained that yes, I was black and that I was a King by marriage [this took a few minutes]. I then asked why Dr. King was famous. The student responded that Dr. King was famous because he was a hero.
This simple story is a starting point in understanding Dr. King’s legacy, but it is a disservice because it does not acknowledge Dr. King’s humanity, the stories of many other civil rights leaders, and King’s call for “citizen service.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a preacher’s kid, a PK. As a PK, he grew up under the careful nurture of his father the Reverend Dr. Martin (Michael) Luther King and his mother, Alberta Williams King. Alberta, also a PK and teacher, took up the job of teaching her children about “the social condition” known as Jim Crow. This meant that she pointedly explained to her children that she loved and valued them but other adults they encountered may not.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize his mother made this observation about the parental responsibility of Black parents: “Black mothers, we make our sons less.” Her statement offers an understanding of the reality that Black mothers are required to offer their beloved children the harsh realities of what it is to be Black in a dominant culture that at best ignores them and at its worst has the potential to take their lives.
When King was fifteen he left his loving parents and headed to Morehouse College. Yes, at fifteen Martin Luther King, Jr. went to college. This was common in the segregated South where bright young people often completed high school at an early age. We are in the presence of fifteen year olds constantly here at OES. We are aware that there is a developmental continuum for fifteen year olds and all fifteen year olds are not the same. So, we may not be surprised to hear that then Morehouse president Benjamin E. Mays said King was “not brilliant”. King was an average student that did not understand the value of applying himself until the end of his collegiate career.
After doing an average job as a student at Morehouse, King moved onto seminary because he felt it was his legacy to be a preacher. Clayborne Carson offers this vivid insight into nineteen-year-old Martin’s experience at Crozer Seminary:
King evidently wishing to break with the relaxed attitude he had had toward his Morehouse studies, he quickly immersed himself in Crozer’s intellectual environment. He later recalled struggling to avoid affirming racial stereotypes: “If I were a minute late to class, I was almost morbidly conscious of it and sure that everyone noticed it. Rather than be thought of as always laughing, I’m afraid I was grimly serious for a time. I had a tendency to overdress, to keep my room spotless, my shoes perfectly shined, and my clothes immaculately pressed.”
Martin felt stereotype threat, the heavy burden of the possibility of affirming negative beliefs held about an identity group that you belong to. What a burden to bear while also trying to learn theology. What impact did this burden have on Martin?
We could easily assume based on the historical narrative of his achievements that Martin responded by excelling. The myth of responding to adversity with achievement. If we look closely we see Martin’s wrestled with his beliefs and formation as a theologian. He worked and struggled with religious theory and ideology to understand what he believed. As Carson states, “He sought a theological framework that combined scholarly rigor with an emphasis on personal experience of God’s imminence.” Perhaps Martin’s experiences of marginalization and academic struggle prepared him to do the things that make him heroic to us. It was this very human man who became the spokesperson for boycotts and one of the leaders of a movement.
Martin did not lead alone. We know this from the photographs and news footage of the era. Martin did not stand alone in the face of violence. Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis, and Bayard Rustin stood with King. Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Height, Prathia Hall, and Mahalia Jackson stood with King. These are only a few of the people that risked their lives alongside Martin. They are of various genders, gender identities, social classes, and educational levels. This diverse group of leaders shared the singular aspiration that we would live up to our country’s promise of equality.
The idea of individual and collective promise is a recurring theme in King’s sermons and speeches. Six months before his death, King had the opportunity to speak to students at Barratt Jr. High School. He asked them, “What is your life’s blueprint?” He explained that a sturdy structure requires “a plan” or “a blueprint.” He told students that to live a well-constructed life they needed to believe in their “somebodiness” and know that human life is valuable. He also emphasized the importance of doing their chosen work well. King again touched on the topic of individual promise and potential in one of his last sermons where he discussed “citizen service”:
“Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s “Theory of Relativity” to serve. You don’t have to know the Second Theory of Thermal Dynamics in Physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”
Perhaps on Monday when you celebrate Martin Luther King’s Birthday you will have the opportunity to reflect on your life’s blueprint, research the stories of those that lead the civil rights fight with Dr. King, or offer your service to others in remembrance of Dr. King’s humble service.
*Here are some resources to support your own "citizen service":
*Here is a list of opportunities to learn in community:
Human Rights Council of Washington County 16th Annual MLK Day Celebration
Saturday, January 13, 2018 from 1:00 – 3:00 p.m.
I Am Not Your Negro Film Screening
Friday, January 19, 2018 6:00pm
Lewis and Clark College Council Chamber
Martin Luther King Lecture Featuring the Honorable Arthur L. Burnett, Sr.
Monday, January 22, 2018 6:00 – 7:00 p.m.
Lewis and Clark College
The Movement: 50 Years of Love and Struggle
One-Man Visual Chronicle by Emmy award-winning actor Ron Jones
Thursday, January 25, 2018 7:00 p.m.
Coffee and Conversation
Friday, January 19, 2018
7:30 – 8:15 a.m.
Lower Fariss Hall, Oregon Episcopal School
Our Guiding Question: How Has Civil Rights Impacted Us?
Please let us know that you will attend via this form.
*Reading and Viewing Resources:
What is Your Blueprint?
The King Collection at Morehouse College
Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Crozer Years
The King Center Archives