Lessons from Dr. Martin Luther King as We Consider Ferguson

Chris —  November 25, 2014

Perhaps, people who are talking past one another can agree that what we need right now are leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. King brought together a number of elements that gave real hope. And hope is what we need. Feel free to ignore my analysis. But at the least watch the below video clip. Or, better yet, listen or read the entire speech Dr. King gave the night before he was murdered.  

Like most of our nation, last night and this morning ,my heart has been heavy for the situation in Ferguson, MO. I watched the story for hours.

It is frustrating to see how little real progress is being made. Nearly anything that be can said is inflammatory one way or another. Those interviewed talk past one another over and over again. People on all sides of the issue believe they have the moral high ground and so, they feel no obligation to listen.

But surely most of us can agree that it is a good time to reflect on Dr. King’s leadership. I am very aware that Dr. King was not a perfect leader. Spare us from pointing out his faults in the comments. But he was certainly used in incredible ways to lead forward in the Civil Rights Movement. He was especially effective at giving hope. Notice how he did this in his final speech (full audio here, full text here):

  • Dr. King applied Scripture to the context of his day. Whether or not we agree with all the applications he made, his audience certainly did. When Dr. King talked about the parable of the Good Samaritan and said, the Good Samaritan didn’t ask, “What will happen to me if I help?” He asked, “What will happen to him if I don’t help?” He challenged his audience that they  must stop to help the sanitation workers. He referenced Scripture over and over again.  Indeed, without biblical categories and thought, Dr. King could not have led the Civil Rights Movement and we cannot hope to find our way without the beacon of truth to guide us. 
  • Dr. King connected the story of the Civil Rights Movement to the biblical narrative. As soon as he said, “I have been to the mountaintop,” his audience immediately knew what he meant: (1) You have been in bondage just like the nation of Israel in Egypt. (2) I am a Moses-like leader. (3) The end is in sight. We can see the Promised Land. (4) You getting there is more important than me getting there. People are created to be a part of something larger than themselves and their time. Dr. King showed his followers how this was so.
  • Dr. King told the story of the progress of the Civil Rights Movement over and over again. In one of the most powerful segments of his speech, Dr. King reminded his audience that there was a time when African-Americans in Georgia started “standing up straight.” And then he said this:

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.

This paragraph reminded his audience that they were going some place – – that they had been going some place – – that they were through being ridden. One of the reasons that tempers are so high right now is because people on all sides of the issues feel that no progress is being made.

  • Dr. King modeled courage. He knew he might die. He thought it was probable. And he did die. When he told the story of being stabbed in New York, he did so to remind his audience what he had been risking. People have hope when they know that their leaders are willing to die for what they believe.
  • Dr. King saw the local churches and pastors as a direct part of the solution. If we are going to make progress, we need the leadership of our churches to help us do so. In his mountaintop speech, Dr. King challenged the pastors:

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 preacher 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.”

And I want to commend the preachers, under the leadership of these noble men: James Lawson, one who has been in this struggle for many years; he’s been to jail for struggling; he’s been kicked out of Vanderbilt University for this struggle, but he’s still going on, fighting for the rights of his people. Reverend Ralph Jackson, Billy Kiles; I could just go right on down the list, but time will not permit. But I want to thank all of them. And I want you to thank them, because so often, preachers aren’t concerned about anything but themselves. And I’m always happy to see a relevant ministry.

It’s all right to talk about “long white robes over yonder,” in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here! It’s all right to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.

  • Dr. King gave very specific instructions about how they would protest. We’re going to march. We won’t be violent. We won’t let dogs, or water hoses, or mace stop us. We will ignore unconstitutional court injunctions. We will be arrested. We will be put in jail. It as the kind of protest that people could support without violating their consciences.

And so, Dr. King gave real hope. By reviewing the story of progress made, by connecting their story to the biblical story, by likening himself to Moses-like leadership, by showing that he was willing to die for this cause, by assuring them that they were on the mountaintop looking over into the Promised Land, Dr. King was saying, “We can get there; we will get there.” This is the sort of hope we need.

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4 responses to Lessons from Dr. Martin Luther King as We Consider Ferguson

  1. Thanks Chris. Very helpful and inspiring. I will use this clip tonight when I speak to a predominately African-American audience.

  2. Hey Chris,

    Thank you for taking the time to write this. This is probably the only article on Ferguson that I’ve read from a Christian leader that I feel good about sharing. Sadly, I think those with a platform blathered on too much about this incident and because they steered away from the gospel, added no value. I shared on FB (and Twitter).

    Happy Thanksgiving.


  3. Thanks Christina. I really appreciate that. I pray that you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend.