I first heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak in person on April 19, 1960 during my senior year at Spelman College. Dr. King was just 31 but he had already gained a national reputation during the successful Montgomery bus boycott five years earlier. The profound impact on me of hearing Dr. King that first time is evident in my diary where I repeated long portions of his speech that had vibrated the chords of my freedom- and justice-hungry soul. It is not often that great leaders and great turning points in history converge and sweep us up in a movement.
Dr. King became a mentor and friend. Many children today have come to see him as a history book hero – a larger-than-life, mythical figure. But it’s crucial for them to understand Dr. King wasn’t a superhuman with magical powers, but a real person – just like all the other ministers, parents, teachers, neighbors, and other familiar adults in their lives today. Although I do remember him as a great leader and a hero, I also remember him as someone able to admit how often he was afraid and unsure about his next step. But faith prevailed over fear, uncertainty, fatigue, and sometimes depression. It was his human vulnerability and ability to rise above it that I most remember. “If I Can Help Somebody Along the Way” was his favorite song.
Dr. King’s greatness lay in his willingness to struggle to hear and see the truth; to not give into fear, uncertainty and despair; to continue to grow and to never lose hope, despite every discouragement from his government and even his closest friends and advisers. He would say: “Take the first step in faith. You don't have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” That first time I heard him at Spelman he told us to always keep going: “If you cannot fly, run; if you cannot run, walk; if you cannot walk, crawl. But keep moving. Keep moving forward.”
Ten years ago I wrote a letter to Dr. King in my book ”The Sea Is So Wide and My Boat Is So Small: Charting a Course for the Next Generation.” I rewrite just a small part of it here:
Although you have been gone 50 years, you are with me every day. We have made much but far from enough progress in overcoming the tenacious national demons of racism, poverty, materialism, and militarism you repeatedly warned could destroy America and all of God’s creation. So I wanted to write you a letter on what we have done and still have to do to realize your and America’s dream. What a privilege it was to know, work with, and learn from you in the struggle to end racial segregation, discrimination, and poverty in our land.
Just as many Old and New Testament prophets in the Bible were rejected, scorned, and dishonored in their own land in their times, so were you by many when you walked among us. Now that you are dead, many Americans remember you warmly but have sanitized and trivialized your message and life. They remember Dr. King the great orator but not Dr. King the disturber of unjust peace. They applaud the Dr. King who opposed violence but not the Dr. King who called for massive nonviolent demonstrations to end war and poverty in our national and world house.