According to the Miriam Webster dictionary a hero is:
a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability
an illustrious warrior
a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities
one who shows great courage
I’ve had a number of heroes in my lifetime, starting with my father, but if I were challenged to quickly name a single individual whose life demonstrated as many of the aforementioned qualities as possible it would have to be Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I have been fascinated by him and his work from the time that he walked among us here on earth. He was in reality an imperfect man like the rest of us but he somehow found an inner resolve again and again to carry out a mission from which he sometimes wanted to run. In the end his dedication to an incredible cause lead to his violent death, a particular irony given that he was always determined to bring about change through passive resistance and peaceful demonstrations.
I once visited his boyhood home in Atlanta, the place where his journey began. It was a two story house just down the street from his father’s Baptist church. It was here that Dr. King grew up and was inculcated with deep devotion to God and values of fairness, justice and love. A favorite story from his youth tells of a day when he was playing perhaps a bit too roughly inside the house and he fell from a second story window, landing with a thud on the lawn. At first the family feared that he might be dead and even when they saw that he was still breathing they worried that his injuries were so severe that he would never again be the same. Miraculously he not only survived but managed to eventually regain his health and exuberance. His grandmother maintained from the day he was born that he had been chosen by God to do special work. She insisted this miracle only proved that he was blessed because much would be expected of him.
It is remarkable how often such mystical qualities are ascribed to the lives and the deeds of important historical figures by those closest to them. Somehow to their families and friends they always seem destined for more than ordinary lives. The people who know them the best see extraordinary gifts in them and truly believe that they will ultimately stand just a bit taller than other mortals. It makes me wonder which comes first. Are such individuals truly selected for all time for some incredible purpose or do their parents and extended family members somehow prepare them to be ready when the time comes to demonstrate their exceptional qualities? Perhaps it is a bit of both but what I really suspect is that their ultimate triumph is often a matter of being in the right place at the right time with the right set of skills and character traits.
If Dr. King’s family had been in charge of the trajectory of his life he would have returned to Atlanta to assume a pastor’s role alongside his father and we might never have heard of him. Instead he felt compelled to begin his ministry in his own way, accepting a position at a small parish in Montgomery, Alabama. His renowned father was disappointed in his son’s choice because working in the less cultured city of Montgomery appeared to be a step backward. The only redeeming value of shepherding the church in Alabama seemed to be that it was noted for being the parish of choice for a number of highly educated men and women who worked in the historically black university, Alabama State, located nearby. It had also served to launch the pastoral careers of some highly popular and charismatic ministers. It seemed to Martin to be a great place for a young man with a family to begin a ministry and possibly prove himself without the giant shadow of his father looming over him.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was surprisingly small in stature. At first glance his parishioners saw little evidence to impress them. He seemed a bit awkward compared to the former pastor who had been a powerful force in the community. They were unsure that Dr. King would be right for the parish, but he had an impressive education and faith-filled resume. As soon as he mounted the pulpit and began to speak with his clear and powerful voice they knew that he was the man that they had hoped to find. He slowly but surely won their hearts and carved out his own reputation as a gifted orator whose sermons attracted notice and crowds. When the Montgomery bus boycott began he was one of the individuals chosen to motivate the citizens to keep the faith in the grand cause. His first foray into political activism achieved stunning results and he would soon became the face and the voice of justice and reason for the Civil Rights movement.
Employing the same methods of passive resistance as Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would lead a significant portion of the nation to admit to their past sins born from slavery and to atone for them. He became known around the world as the leader of a cause that was long overdue. Even when his courage and resolve wavered he rallied himself to continue the battle for people who had far too long been pushed to the edges of society. He managed over and over again to draw attention to the plight of blacks in America with peaceful demonstrations and powerful denunciations of racism and hatred. His ultimate triumph came in the march on Washington D.C. when the whole world heard him utter words that would never be forgotten. Hundreds of thousands of people of different races, religious beliefs, and political persuasions joined together on one glorious day to show their support for tearing down barriers that shamefully still existed a hundred years after the slaves had been freed.
Dr. King had a magnificent dream, but he also had nightmares. He was ultimately a reality driven man. He understood that there was still much work to be done, much injustice to overcome. He realized that there were still those who hated the black man and that he was a target of their anger. In his final days he seemed to have had a premonition that he would die. His mission was ultimately to be a servant of the Lord and he sensed that his time at the center of a great movement was growing to a close. He told his closest friends about his worries but he pushed himself even as he sensed that he was in danger.
The day on which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated was one of the darkest days of my life. His funeral took place in his childhood home of Atlanta. His casket passed through the streets on a simple wooden work wagon pulled by mules. The image of his funeral cortege reduces me to tears to this very day. We had lost one the the greatest men in the history of our country.
We do not easily let go of our heroes. I still miss Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and I often wonder what he would have to say about our world today. I long for his wisdom and ability to bring out the best in the people to whom he preached. I wish that he were still with us but know that I must be content with knowing that he is resting eternally with the angels. His work was so very difficult. Few among us would have been able to bear his burdens nor maintain his enormous faith that God Himself had ordained the movement that lead to great change.
The world is quite different from what is was back then. Five decades have passed and great progress has been made but vestiges of racism remain. I often fear that I will never see it’s total eradication in my lifetime but mine eyes have seen the glory of a movement and a man who transcended the challenges and the forces that wanted to hold him down. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a nation toward the Promised Land. He will always be my hero.