April 4, 1968, changed history forever. It was no longer the life of a man, but the legacy he left behind. A woman lost her husband, four children lost their father, and the world lost one of the greatest leaders it had ever known.
Martin Luther King Jr. is a personal hero of mine, so I always take a moment to remember and honor him in my own way. For the last few years that’s meant listening to his “I Have A Dream” speech on YouTube.
If you have 15 minutes, I’d encourage you to listen to it again. It never fails to bring me to tears.
This year, though, I decided to listen to his “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” speech, the last one he gave. I’ve heard excerpts from it before, but as it’s about 45 minutes long I don’t know that I’ve heard the whole thing. Once again, I found him not only inspiring but somehow comforting.
I’ve always been drawn to the stories of Moses, Abraham Lincoln and MLK. Liberation and abolition were a part of my heart’s vocabulary before I truly understood what they meant. There was just something beautiful and righteous about helping others gain their freedom. I admired them for their actions, though I am saddened they were even necessary.
Personally, I still have a really hard time even processing the Civil Rights Movement. I am always baffled by the fact that it was in full swing only a decade or so before I was born. I just can’t fathom that life existed at all, but much less right before mine began. How was/is that kind of hate tolerated? Where does it come from? Why is it encouraged? I have sat and thought and shed tears wondering what I would do if I were in any of their situations. I have prayed with every fiber of my being that I am the kind of person would have fought for those people. It would have been ugly. It would have been hard. It would have been painful, mentally, spiritually, and quite possibly physically. But it would’ve been the right thing to do.
I can’t remember where, possibly in David Batstone’s book, Not For Sale, but someone spoke about the 27 million slaves in the world today, and then asked a question like, “When your children asked what you did to help them, what will you say?” I sat with that for a while, and then I smiled. I finally had the answer to the question that I wondered in my heart for so long. I now know that I am a part of the solution. I know that I wouldn’t, that I couldn’t, ignore it. I would never knowingly be part of the problem, but it would be easy enough to sit back and let someone else take charge. Except that, for me, I can’t. God has built it into me. Ignoring it or doing nothing wouldn’t be easy. It would eat at me until I acted on it because it’s part of my God-given design. I am, and always have been, an abolitionist. And now is my chance to prove it.
Today, listening to MLK’s speech, I feel I identified with him more than ever before. And while there are probably a hundred lessons to learn, I will share with you four that meant something in particular to me right now with where I’m at in life. If you’ve got 45 minutes, below is the speech in it’s entirety. It’s pretty remarkable. Or you can read it here.
1. IF YOU HEAR THE TRUTH, PREACH IT. For me, this means telling others about modern-day slavery. It is a message God has put within me to share. Yes, others can and will do it. But I won’t let them do it without me. It is “a kind of fire shut up in my bones.”
In his speech he said, “We need all of you. And you know what’s beautiful to me is to see all of these ministers of the Gospel. It’s a marvelous picture. Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somehow the preacher must have a kind of fire shut up in his bones. And whenever injustice is around he tell it. Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, and saith, ‘When God speaks who can but prophesy?’ Again with Amos, ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ Somehow the preach must say with Jesus, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me. And he’s anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor.”
Amos 7:14-15, “But Amos replied, “I’m not a professional prophet, and I was never trained to be one. I’m just a shepherd, and I take care of sycamore-fig trees. But the Lord called me away from my flock and told me, ‘Go and prophesy to my people in Israel.’”
2. PUT YOUR MONEY WHERE YOUR MOUTH IS. This lesson is very timely because my friends and I at Not For Sale Georgia released a Purchase With Purpose guide this fall. It’s filled with 250+ companies that care about social responsibility and are striving to ensure that their supply chain is slave free. I want to buy better, and I want to teach others to do the same.
In his speech he said, “Always anchor our external direct action with the power of economic withdrawal. Now, we are poor people. Individually, we are poor when you compare us with the white society in America. We are poor. Never stop and forget collectively—that means all of us together—collectively we are richer than all the nations in the world, with the exception of nine… That’s power right there, if we know how to pool it.
We don’t have to argue with anybody. We don’t have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don’t need any bricks and bottles. We don’t need any Molotov cocktails. We just need to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country and say, ‘God sent us by here, to say to you that you’re not treating his children right. And we’ve come by here to ask that you make them the first item on your agenda fair treatment, where God’s children are concerned. Now, if you’re not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you.”
3. BECOME DANGEROUSLY UNSELFISH. I, by nature, am selfish. But I want to change that. It’s part of the reason I’ve chosen my theme for the year as SIMPLIFY. I know once I personally have less, I’ll be able to give more. Like many of my friends who have been on mission trips and humanitarian trips, I have had the privilege to spend time with some people who have very little. As you’ve probably heard others say, they are almost always quite happy, and they eagerly share what little they have with you. How many middle to upper class Americans does that accurately describe? I’m guessing the Rx tablets at the doctor’s offices would say very few. If I don’t care as much about my “stuff,” then I won’t care as much about having less or sharing it. Hmmm, I’m pretty sure there’s a Beattitude in there somewhere.
In his speech he said, “Now, let me say as I move to my conclusion that we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school—be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together. Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.” He then goes on to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-27, following with, “And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by and he reversed the question, ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’
4. I, TOO, HAVE GLIMPSED THE PROMISED LAND. I believe when MLK made this statement he simply meant that he had seen the capacity for what’s good, and what’s right. And he saw that change was on they way. I, too, am privileged to see that on a regular basis. More and more people are becoming aware that slavery is not an issue of the past, but one that continues to the present. It is no longer conversations of one or two people, but thousands. Event audiences are growing, people are asking questions, and moreover, they are asking what they can do. A motto of Not For Sale is to end slavery in this lifetime. I know some days, that seems an insurmountable task when you hear the number 27 million, or the heartbreaking story of a child sold into that life, or the number of Johns (perpetrators) even in your own community. And then, there are those glimpses of the Promised Land when you hear the story of a rescue, the birth of a new survivor. I do not know if slavery will end in my lifetime. I hope so. I pray so. I just know I have to get in there and be part of the fight.
In his speech he said, after describing the bomb threat to his plane, “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!
And so I’m happy, tonight.
I’m not worried about anything.
I’m not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!
This speech took place April 3, 1968. Dr. King was assassinated the next day. When I finally sit and have a conversation with MLK in Heaven, which is on my list, I won’t ask if he’d do it all again. I know without a doubt he would. After all, he’d been to the mountaintop. Who would want to come down from that? He did what God put inside him to do. There is no regret in that. I know there are moments he would like to have seen, like his children growing up, growing old with his wife, and hanging out with friends. But he fulfilled his mission. He did what he existed for. How amazing is that! I want that!
Today is a special day.We don’t just honor a life. We continue his legacy.
Why do I fight the battle of an abolitionist? I do it because my heroes did it. I do it because my God specifically designed me for it. I do it because I can. I do it because I must. I do it because in the midst of the darkness, there are glimpses of the Promised Land. And they make it worth the fight.
2 Kings 6:16-17, “Don’t be afraid!” Elisha told him. ‘For there are more on our side than on theirs!’ Then Elisha prayed, ‘O Lord, open his eyes and let him see!’ The Lord opened the young man’s eyes, and when he looked up, he saw that the hillside around Elisha was filled with horses and chariots of fire.”
27 million. It’s a lot. But there are more on our side than on theirs. God, whether you open my eyes to see it or not, I know you and your armies are there. I have faith.
I am not just living a life. I am continuing God’s legacy, just as Martin Luther King Jr did. Whether my name is celebrated by only one, or one million, I fight.