On Wednesday nights this month at the Lincoln Center, a Bible study is being offered on the Scriptures that informed Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership.
Last Wednesday, the Rev. Sam Hill, pastor of North Bryan New Birth Baptist Church, carried us through Matthew 5, where Jesus uses contrastive language to explain the high calling of living in this world as God intends. For example, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not murder.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with someone, you will be liable to judgment.” Hill explained that abiding by such demands on our lives sounds impossible, but only if we assume those demands are for the individual to carry out solo. Placing his Bible on top of a door and inviting a child and an adult forward, the pastor concluded his lesson by instructing the child to get on the adult’s shoulders to reach the Bible.
When it comes to the high calling of living a God-dreamed life, I can’t do it on my own. None of us can — not even someone as revered as MLK.
King knew this. He preached a message of striving for a greater good beyond oneself, always reminding his hearers that achieving that dream of peaceable equity is not possible without peaceably relating to and relying on one another. “We must live together as brothers or perish together as fools,” he said. His exemplified words were so powerful that we still turn to them today; but living out the calling on his life would not have been possible without his spouse, Coretta Scott King.
In her autobiography, she writes about King’s frequent admission to her that while he felt called by God to work for civil and human rights, he could not rise to that calling without her partnership and support. Coretta set aside a career in music to marry King and raise the four children they would have. Still, she maintained her vocation by traveling around the country singing in Freedom Concerts, which helped fund her husband’s civil rights organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “Sometimes Martin would brag about how the SCLC could make payroll only because of the money I’d brought in,” she wrote.
King is heralded as a peacemaker, having made the unpopular decision to speak out against the Vietnam War in his historic address at Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, but Coretta stoked his voice. She was involved in antiwar activism, marching, protesting and mounting public challenges to the war, long before King preached against it in obedience to Jesus’ teaching: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
Remembering MLK’s legacy is good and necessary, but we should also remember the woman who enabled him to reach his high calling. It’s important to note that Mrs. King helped create the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act “that would affect the destiny of millions” at a time when “unemployment for black and brown people was 12.6 percent, more than double that of the national average (5.9%).”
When pondering how far we’ve come in advancing racial justice, we should recognize that Mrs. King worked with President Carter on an area she considered profoundly important to the direction of the country: the appointment of black judges to the federal bench. And when it comes to remembering MLK today, we must acknowledge Coretta’s tireless work after her husband’s death to preserve his legacy through the establishment of the King Center in Atlanta, whose mission it is to “prepare global citizens to create a more just, humane and peaceful world using Dr. King’s nonviolent philosophy and methodology.”
Ultimately, Coretta helped King reach for his God-given vision of what he called the Beloved Community. It’s based on the practices of the earliest Christians, who worked for reconciliation and peace in their times of fear and divisiveness by encouraging one another and building each other up (1 Thessalonians 5:11), rather than seeing themselves as a territorial religious sect founded on unsustainable self-preservation. As Mrs. King writes, “To me, the Beloved Community is a spiritual bond that claims the energies and commitment of a diverse group of people who desire to serve a cause larger than themselves. The Beloved Community is fueled by unconditional love, feels like family, and transcends race, religion, and class.”
To honor King, then, is to work together for a culmination of neighborliness where none of us can rise up without reaching for one another. It’s at the heart of Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. It’s what keeps us from giving into the worldly temptation of responding to the needs of refugees, human beings displaced by poverty, violence, and war, with self-serving rhetoric that asks, “Shouldn’t we just take care of our own?” It’s what keeps our hearts from hardening to the experience of black people who, despite the well-intentioned efforts of law enforcement, fear police brutality, with the dismissive commentary, “Well, if they’d just follow the rules, nothing bad would happen to them.”
It’s what keeps us from turning inward when it is our shared calling to look out for our wellbeing, no matter who we are or where we come from. And to honor this high calling, we need one another.
The Rev. Dan De Leon is the pastor of Friends Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, College Station.