I’ve been fascinated with the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. since I was a little boy. As a first grader at Monroe Street School in February 1968, Mrs. Graham selected me to wear a robe and proclaim, “I have a dream today,” in the Black History Week program. Two months later, on April 4, 1968, Martin was shot dead in Memphis, Tennessee.
I remember sitting in the den with my family, glued to the one television in the house. It seemed like America was on fire. Two blocks away, students at Livingstone College stopped studying for exams and started marching. My dad had preached about the world being on fire at the end of time. My six-year-old mind thought this must be the end dad preached about. Sitting as close as I could to my weeping mother, I waited for my world to go up in flames. It never did.
As a student of Dr. King’s Beloved Community paradigm, I’m often asked what he would say about the quagmire of problems facing America today. I wish I knew. I’m sure he would have an emphatic message for the nation he loved so dearly. Maybe he would lead a march or mount a platform and declare, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish as fools.” Maybe he would gather millions to the capital of our nation and make long overdue demands on behalf of the poor, oppressed and disenfranchised masses of our country.
I have no idea what Martin would say on any particular dynamic facing America today, but I have an idea about what he might say in general. King would possibly say, “Don’t panic, my brothers and my sisters; God is still on the throne.”
Dr. King often had reason to panic and assume that the flames would engulf him. On January 30, 1956, his home was bombed with his wife Coretta and first-born, Yolanda, inside. Rather than retaliate, King encouraged the angry supporters to go in peace. In the 1962 Albany, Georgia campaign, King and the SCLC suffered defeat and humiliation in efforts to desegregate public accommodations, but instead of panicking, they regrouped and moved to Birmingham.
In Birmingham in 1963, King initiated mass civil disobedience and launched a “new extreme” tactic, employing children and youth on the front lines of confrontation. Jailed for the 13th time, he did not panic. Out of a chaotic situation, he wrote, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which he clarified and defined the Civil Rights Movement. On September 15, four black girls were killed in a bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church. Instead of surrendering King fought harder.
On March 7, 1965, hundreds of peaceful demonstrators attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. They were met by Alabama State Troopers who beat them with batons and trampled fallen marchers with horses before a stunned national and international audience. Three weeks later, a determined King led thousands of marchers from Selma to Montgomery, where he delivered his powerful, “How Long, Not Long,” speech.
While I’m unsure what Dr. King would say about the current state of unrest in our nation, I’m pretty confident about what Jesus the Christ would tell us about extinguish our prevailing fears… “And Jesus, answering them, began to say: “Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am He,’ and will deceive many. But when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be troubled; for such things must happen, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be earthquakes in various places, and there will be famines and troubles. These are the beginnings of sorrow” (Mark 13:5-8).
Dr. George B. Jackson is founder and chairman of the Martin Luther King Social Action Committee in Thomasville, NC.