This Monday was an American federal holiday marking the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is observed on the third Monday of January each year, around the time of Dr. King’s birthday, January 15. Martin Luther King was born Michael King, Jr. in 1929, named after his father the preacher, who was also born with the name Michael King.
In 1934, after becoming pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Dr. King, Sr. changed his name and that of his eldest son from Michael King to Martin Luther King after becoming inspired during a trip to Germany by the life of Martin Luther (1483–1546). We know this Luther as the German theologian who initiated the Protestant Reformation.
Dr. King, Jr. is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights, especially for African Americans, using nonviolent civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs. On October 14, 1964, King received the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolence. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee.
My earliest perceptions of Dr. King over 45 years ago were not all positive. Since that time I have developed an appreciation for what he did and said. Here are some of his most famous quotes:
- “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
- “Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.”
- “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
- “I have decided to stick to love…Hate is too great a burden to bear. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.”
- “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”
- “Only in the darkness can you see the stars.”
- “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
- “A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live. No one really knows why they are alive until they know what they’d die for.”
- “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.”
- “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
- “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.’”
- “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
- “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other. We must live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
- “Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. Just keep being friendly to that person. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says to love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.”
My perspective is that a significant number of these statements sound as if they might well have also been spoken by the man after whom Dr. King’s father named them both. This Dr. Martin Luther lived in the 15th and 16th centuries. Here are a few similarities observed between the two men:*
- A single issue for each of them was their lifelong battles for reform. For Martin Luther, a Catholic monk, it was his parishioners buying indulgences, purchasing their salvation to fill Rome’s coffers. For Martin Luther King, it was a black woman being arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. Both saw their parishioners struggling in the face of corruption and autocracy.
- Both struggled with the laws and doctrines of their time. Luther King worked to eradicate segregation in America. Luther spent much of his life trying to reform the Roman Catholic Church.
- Both were fathers and husbands who deeply loved their families despite their many other commitments and responsibilities.
- Both lived controversial lives, suffered incarceration and death threats and died before they should have.
- Martin Luther and Martin Luther King left the world a better place, leaving large tracts of their thoughts and beliefs through the written and spoken word.
Both were men whom God raised up in their own time to accomplish, each in his own way, much good that prevails to this very day.