When recalling a significant historical event, people often say, “I remember where I was when ...” And so it is with me when I learned Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. I was with my dad when the news came over the radio. He grew quiet, his square shoulders slumped, and with few words he explained that Dr. King was a good man who was probably killed to silence him.
I was white, growing up in inner-city Detroit, attending a school where the majority of students were black. The civil rights movement was front and center, and racial tensions and violence were commonplace. More than once I faced violent threats simply because of my skin color. I turned to God through prayer to prevent an attack or to know what to say or do when classmates threatened me. When things got particularly violent, I appealed to school officials for help. It was clear that despite their good intentions, they likely could not prevent the attacks if the students remained hatefully determined.
I attended a Christian Science Sunday School, where I learned about Christ Jesus and studied his Sermon on the Mount. Speaking of the significance of Jesus’ teachings, Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, explained, “The Sermon on the Mount is the essence of this Science, and the eternal life, not the death of Jesus, is its outcome” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 271).
I also learned about Jesus being taken to the edge of a cliff by an angry mob that intended to throw him off the cliff to silence him. Through God’s grace, Jesus was able to walk among them unharmed and go elsewhere (see Luke 4:16-32).
I made a connection between Jesus’ teachings and what I knew of King’s example. Regardless of what others said or did, King showed moral courage and an untiring pursuit of freedom without regard to skin color, inspiring Christian charity.
Applying what I’d learned in Sunday School, I understood that God is Love, as the Bible says. That was my starting point, because I wanted to obey God. I wanted to love and be lovable – that is, be respected by and cooperate with my peers. I didn’t presume we had to become close friends, but I knew my fellow classmates and I shouldn’t have to expect an attack. The Bible explains, “The name of the Lord is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it, and is safe” (Proverbs 18:10).
So it was that my prayers were soon answered. I was free of fear and of expecting violence as well as the urgent feeling that I had to defend my friends. There was a return to normal activities at school with no intervention by school officials. And there were no more threats based on race made to me or my friends for the remainder of the school year. Some of us even became friendly at school social events.
Just as King’s Christian example of brotherly love encouraged me then, so it has many times in the decades since. The assassination could not stay his righteous influence. His life and words connect practically to the Sermon on the Mount for all time. Among my favorites of his quotations:
- Problem solving and forgiveness: “That old law about an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.”
- Making choices: “Life’s most urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”
- Faith and trusting God’s direction: “You don’t have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.”
- Character and excellence: “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”
In remembering King’s moral courage, his untiring pursuit of freedom without regard to skin color, and his great Christian speeches, I’m reminded of Pliny’s measure of a man’s greatness: “Doing what deserves to be written, and writing what deserves to be read; and rendering the world happier and better for having lived in it.”