The Life and Legacy of Dr. King
About the Guest
Everyone has a context. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is no exception. Jemar Tisby, author of "The Color of Compromise," and Bob Lepine have a candid conversation about how the Lord prepared Dr. King through his childhood, his family, and his education, to be the right person at the right time to be the figurehead for the Civil Rights movement in the 1960's. Program Note: Bob Lepine mentions the entire conversation is online. The web version and podcast feed is not edited down fore time and includes the longer conversation.
Jemar TisbyJemar (B.A. Notre Dame; Mdiv RTS Jackson) is the president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective where he writes about race, religion, and culture. He is also the co-host of "Pass The Mic”, a podcast that amplifies dynamic voices for a diverse church. His writing has been featured in the The Atlantic, the Washington Post, CNN, Vox, and the New York Times. He has spo...more
Jemar Tisby talks about how the Lord prepared Dr. King to be the right person at the right time to be the figurehead for the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s.
The Life and Legacy of Dr. King
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, January 21st. Our host is Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.
You’ll hear today from an historian who gives all of us insight into Dr. Martin Luther King’s background, and how God used him to expose a culture of racism in the United States a generation ago. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Monday edition.
We’re going to acknowledge that this is a special Monday; it’s a holiday here in the United States.
Dennis: It is. As you’ll recall, Bob, I came to you a few years back and I said, “Bob, when our Weekend to Remember marriage conference speaker team—all the couples who speak at these events—get together, it seems to coincide with Martin Luther King Day.”
Bob: We have a planning retreat that we do, a training retreat we do with these speakers in January every year, and as you said, most of the time we’re meeting on the Monday that is the national holiday and the acknowledgement, the celebration of Dr. King’s birthday.
Dennis: I came to you and I said, “Bob, you’re heading up the speaker team. I bet that there are those on our Weekend to Remember marriage conference speaker team who have heard clips of Dr. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ message—
—but they’ve never taken the time to listen to it beginning to end.” So I said, “Hey, let’s play it.” I think our entire team enjoyed it. It created all kinds of discussion.
So, when the following year came back around, which was last year, you found somebody who we could interact with and help us understand more of what was behind that message and Dr. King in the first place.
Bob: We spent about 45 minutes interacting with Jemar Tisby. Jemar is the cofounder of The Witness; he’s a writer and a blogger. He’s a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Mississippi. He is studying history and really diving deep into the whole civil rights movement.
We asked him if we could just learn more about the life and legacy of Dr. King. We obviously don’t have time for our listeners to hear the whole thing, but the entire conversation is available online at FamilyLifeToday.com; if you want to download the podcast and listen to it that way, you can do that.
But we’re going to hear a portion of it today.
Dennis: And I would encourage you, if your kids are still home because of the holiday, invite them to listen with you, and then take some time and let them express what they learned and understanding that they’ve gained from listening to Jemar.
Bob: Most of us who know about Dr. King know kind of the high points of his life. We know about Selma, we know about the Birmingham jail, we know about Washington and “I Have a Dream” and, of course, know about his assassination; but a lot of people don’t know the history, the background. They don’t know about his growing-up years and—didn’t he start Morehouse at 15 years old?
Jemar: Yes. So, that’s one of the things that we should understand about Dr. King. A lot of us remember him simply as a great orator, as an activist, but he was intellectual. He was a theologian.
He skipped grades, so he started high school at 13 years old, he graduated as a junior at 15 years old, and then enrolled in Morehouse College. After he graduated Morehouse College he wanted a seminary degree, so he went to Crozer Seminary.
And then he went on to Ph.D. work at Boston University, but it’s interesting to note that he also got accepted at the University of Edinborough for his Ph.D. He took classes at Harvard while he was at Boston University, and he got his Ph.D. in systematic theology. So yes, that’s what King was doing.
Bob: Was that a part of the family structure that he grew up in? Did his mom and dad press him intellectually?
Jemar: Yes. His family life cannot be underestimated when it comes to understanding the man Martin Luther King, Jr. came to be. So, his father was a preacher, and in the black community preachers were often the most educated members of the community. His grandfather was a preacher; it was in his blood for sure.
Martin Luther King was born in 1929. His family life, particularly growing up in the church, really structured his childhood and his outlook on life and on morality. His grandmother was a massive part of giving him sensitivity and empathy. So we could talk for hours about the way his family life—particularly his father, who they called “Daddy King”—and how he influenced him.
Bob: He came to prominence in connection with Rosa Parks in 1955 in Birmingham; is that right?
Jemar: Correct. Exactly.
Bob: He was pastor of a church in Montgomery, Alabama, Dexter Street Baptist Church. What was his involvement in Birmingham that led up to what happened with Rosa Parks?
Jemar: So, Martin Luther King was part of the NAACP in Montgomery. He got his church, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, involved in all kinds of social activism. He was already kind of shooting to the top of people’s radars as an activist—
—and they chose him because he was already known as an intelligent, eloquent speaker. Many people say he was a better preacher than his father. So he got chosen—he was 26 years old—to lead the Montgomery boycott. Literally, there was a rally that night or the next day, and he only had 20 minutes, from 6:30 to 6:50, to prep what he was going to say. He typically spent about 15 hours prepping a sermon.
Well, all that preparation—I mean, his entire life had prepared him for this moment, so it was, I think, at that specific moment, when he went to this first rally for the Montgomery boycott and he spoke so eloquently, so powerfully—the Martin Luther King, Jr. we all remember, right?—and when he did, he lit up this spark in people. That really catapulted him to prominence, not only in the movement but nationally, and, at the end of the day, they were successful.
Bob: I know as a teenager he had had something of a crisis of faith, had wondered if there really was a God. Did that issue get fully settled for him as he began ministry, or did he continue to wrestle with his understanding of who God is and God’s role in things?
Jemar: His kitchen table moment came about a month into the boycott. He was getting up to 25 phone calls a day that were death threats, and he had to pick up the phone, because back then they didn’t have cell phones, so he didn’t want to miss a crucial call from his allies. So every time the phone rang he picked up the phone, and many times it would be death threats.
But one night he got back, late night, he got another one of these calls, and it just rattled him. He couldn’t go to sleep, so he put on some coffee, sat down at the kitchen table, and he prayed. He writes about this in his autobiography. Basically, he had come to the end of himself. He felt completely inadequate for this role, he didn’t think he would survive. He had a newborn infant.
So he cried out to God, and he said, “My father’s faith can’t save me.” So I think, even though he had sort of “walked the aisle” and a profession of faith at five or six years old, this was the first time he really came to the end of himself and realized his personal need of salvation. So I don’t—I wouldn’t characterize it as his conversion moment, but it was certainly a powerful moment. When he cried out, God met him and strengthened him, and he could continue being leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association.
Now, in preaching, because we all have those kitchen table moments, right, or we all need to have them—we all need to have those moments where we get to the end of ourselves—so, King had many of those moments throughout his life, but he would cry out to God, and I think that’s what believers do today.
To me, it humanizes King, doesn’t it?
Jemar: It tells us that this incredible, singular figure in U.S. history—not just civil rights history, but U.S. history—
—was a weak and flawed man as well, but that when he cried out to God he gained strength, and we can too.
Bob: Tell us about Coretta and about whether she was someone who nudged him to stay in the fight or tried to get him to back out of the fight.
Jemar: Coretta Scott King, like many black women, does not get the credit she deserves. She had all the qualities that Martin Luther King was looking for in a woman; she was intelligent, she was beautiful, she was strong—all of those things. Throughout King’s ministry, she was a rod of iron for him. She was a steel backbone and always encouraged him, and, as a matter of fact, was an activist in her own right, and wanted to do more. But she was raising children and keeping the home and all of those things.
Bob: So, 1955, and the situation with Rosa Parks. Dr. King is now thrust into a movement as kind of a figurehead for a movement that he never intended to be a figurehead for, right?
Jemar: That’s exactly right. You can’t plan these kinds of things. Even at the organizing meetings, they were waiting for the perfect candidate to challenge segregation. Rosa Parks was this older, well-respected lady, she’s quiet, even though she was an activist. It was actually other ministers, like Ralph Abernathy, who said, “Hey, this is it.” They’re actually the ones who promoted Dr. King as the leader.
He didn’t self-promote, and he was always reluctant to be a leader, because he was always young. So, no matter what phase of the civil rights movement, he was always one of the youngest leaders. His intelligence, his eloquence, his theology, his philosophy of activism, all catapulted him to the forefront of the movement. No one’s ever ready for that, right? There’s no precedent for this level of activism in the 20th century. So he’s the head of the biggest civil rights movement of the 20th century. How do you prep for that?
Jemar: You can’t. What he had was a great education.
He had grown up in the black church, so he knew the faith, and—this is what I think was so exceptional about Dr. King—whenever that critical moment arose, he stepped forward. So, whether it was that one night in Montgomery with the first rally, and he gave an eloquent speech with virtually no preparation; whether it was the civil rights march in 1963, where he gives another—it’s not just an eloquent speech, it’s an inspiring speech, it’s an aspirational speech. It speaks to our highest ideals as American citizens and as a Christians, and he stepped up for that moment.
He was always able to do that when it really counted, and I think that’s what gave people confidence in him. He was simply a man whose entire life had prepared him for a particular role, and he fulfilled that role very well by being obedient to Christ. He really saw himself as simply being obedient to God and being a mouthpiece for God.
Bob: I’ve had limited opportunity to look at his writings, but it appeared that he remained centered on an understanding of the Gospel in what he did. I know Gandhi had some influence in his life, in terms of nonviolence and interaction, but he kept coming back to the Bible and Jesus as the centerpiece of all he was doing as an activist, didn’t he?
Jemar: This is exceptional about King. So, again, his upbringing in the black church cannot be underestimated. We have to understand that what King was talking about, this connection between the spiritual and the social, was not original at all. Christians worldwide had believed that, and especially marginalized and persecuted Christians. You can go anywhere in the world today, and they’ll resonate with Dr. King.
So, Dr. King was really simply echoing what he had always learned in the black church and from Christians throughout history.
Now, it’s important to also note that King academically had a lot of influences from philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. As I learn about King’s education, I’m just amazed at the breadth of influences that he had.
Through it all, he viewed it through a Christian lens. So everything King said about nonviolence, everything he said about resisting injustice and oppression, that comes from a biblical worldview. So he articulated that in a powerful way and mobilized that in activism, and we still, I think, today have a lot to learn from the way that King melded his Christian faith and the pursuit of justice in society.
Bob: I want you to tease that out a little bit more. Given the current day, the current climate, have we just regressed—
—or is this like—are we digging the same hole all over again? What is your sense of his impact on where we are in 2018?
Jemar: That’s an important question to ask, and I think we have to remind ourselves of the simple things we take for granted; for instance, right now I’m speaking to you, a white man, and a mixed audience, and I’m speaking as a black man about Martin Luther King, Jr. That wouldn’t have happened in King’s day, not without much controversy.
I’m attending the University of Mississippi for my Ph.D.! It wasn’t until 1962, I think it was, when James Meredith integrated the university—we’re much more integrated in the sense that people of color have access to different areas now.
So we have made progress, and that should not be overlooked. In many senses, I am living Dr. King’s dream, and many other people of color like me are living King’s dream. At the same time, we have to think about this spiritually, right?
So, if racism is actually a sin, do any sins every completely vanish from the face of the earth? No! As long as we’re awaiting the second coming, we’re always going to deal with sin in its various forms. Racism is a sin, so we’re always going to be dealing with it in its various forms.
Now, that last part is very important. Racism never goes away, it just changes forms. So, in King’s day it was really characterized as Jim Crow segregation. You had signs over drinking fountains that said “blacks only,” “whites only.” You couldn’t sit on certain parts of the bus. So we see that very visibly, but racism is still playing itself out today.
I’ll tell you this quick story. I was at the grand opening of the new civil rights museum in Jackson, Mississippi. It’s the first state-funded civil rights museum in the country, and it’s this massive celebratory event. Myrlie Evers-Williams, who is the widow of Medgar Evers, who was assassinated—
—he was the NAACP field secretary in Jackson in the ’60s—she had a private press conference at the end of the ceremonies. She said in that, “I never thought I would see a day when it felt like what it felt like back in the ’60s.” She said, “I think we’re in that time right now.”
Bob: Jemar, I’ve shared with some of my friends here [that] I was 12 years old, living in St. Louis, in 1968. We were getting ready to go on our spring break vacation from St. Louis down to Florida, and our plan was to either spend the night in Memphis on the way down or to spend the night in Jackson on the way down to break up the trip. Two days before we were supposed to leave to go, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis.
Bob: As a 12-year-old growing up in suburban St. Louis in a middle class family, here’s what I had heard: I had heard that a man who was primarily a rabble-rouser, who went into communities—
—and stirred up people to protest, had been assassinated, and the subtext I heard was, “Maybe it’s for the best.”
Bob: It’s hard for me to go back and confront that as the environment I was growing up in in that day. I think we’re in a different day, as we look back on Dr. King’s legacy on a nation today; don’t you?
Jemar: We certainly are in terms of the way we remember Dr. King. So, I was struck—I was reading Edward Gilbreath’s Reconciliation Blues. He tells an anecdote of this guy named Dolphus Weary.
Jemar: He was a civil rights activist in Mississippi. I’ve met Dolphus, we’ve had conversations. I’ve talked to his granddaughter. He remembers being in school when the news of Dr. King’s assassination came out, and he remembers white students in his school cheering the news that King was dead.
It’s not that people were just outright bigots.
There certainly were those. More often, the resistance came in the pace of change and how to bring about the change. “Well, just let things play out. Be gradual.” They also didn’t believe the government should force change on the racial front, and I think we even see echoes of that today.
Bob: So, I was going to ask you, what would you say to us on Martin Luther King Day that we ought to keep in mind and it ought to shape how we think about our faith in these days?
Jemar: I think primarily, I always go back to Joshua one, where Moses has just died, Joshua is taking over the leadership of the Hebrews, and they’re about to go into the Promised Land. Of course, Joshua’s feeling very nervous, and God says to him, “Be strong and very courageous.” He says variations of that phrase three times in the first, you know, nine, ten verses of the chapter. He says, “Be strong and courageous,” and I think that’s what we have to do.
Listen: we either take God at His word or we don’t. If He says we’re going to suffer persecution for righteousness’ sake, then we’re going to suffer persecution for righteousness’ sake; but if He says that He’s going to take care of us, that He’s going to be with us even to the end of the world, then He’s going to be with us.
So what that does is it empowers us to leave everything on the field, as it were. So I want to encourage people to be bold and courageous.
Also, expose yourself to other people. We realize, of course, we’re still segregated, whether in churches or houses or schools. You can live your life without having really any meaningful relationships with people who are different from you racially or culturally. So that means you have to intentionally put yourself in the place of exposure to people who are different. That’s not going to happen by you just living your life.
You are not going to come into contact very often with people who are different if you don’t have to. So you have to be intentional about that.
Bob: We’re going to wrap things up. Thank you for helping us just pull our thoughts together on this day.
Bob: Yes. Father, thank You for Jemar and for how You are at work in and through him. Thank You for what You’ve called him to, for his writing and his influence, and I pray that You would continue to give him opportunity, give him platform to be a representative, be a witness for You. Thank you for how he has spoken to us. Bless him, I pray in Your name, Amen.
Bob: It’s a good word for all of us, isn’t it?
Jemar: Thank you so much.
Bob: Well again, we’ve been listening to a conversation that took place a year ago, with Jemar Tisby talking about Dr. King’s life and legacy. Let me just mention to our listeners, you heard about half of the conversation here on FamilyLife Today. If you’d like to hear the entire conversation I had with Jemar Tisby—
—including dialogue we have about what Dr. King might be speaking to if he was still alive today—and we talked candidly about Dr. King’s humanity and about some of his failings as a Christian leader—you can go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com, and you can download the entire podcast and listen to our entire conversation.
Dennis: And, as our listeners just heard, that wasn’t golf applause. That was applause from the heart.
I think a lot of us suffer from ignorance, because we’ve never truly understood the context of what has taken place in the civil rights movement and the price that was paid to gain freedoms. My takeaway, as I listen to him share, is there’s a context for a large portion of our society that we all need to go near.
We need a friend who is of a different color than we are, a different ethnicity, and we need to get close enough that we have freedom to explain things to one another and give context.
Bob: And help us understand each other’s perspective.
Dennis: Yes. You just can’t assume that I don’t want to understand; I just may not know. If you don’t have a close friend who is of a different ethnicity, then could I ask you to pray about this this year, and then do something about it by year-end? Ask God to give you a friend that sticks closer than a brother, maybe somebody like I have, a friend who is one of my pall-bearers. If he beats me to heaven, I’m going to drop him in the grave; but if I beat him, he’s going to kick me over into the grave.
You know, we need those kinds of open, honest friendships that can help us understand the context of other people.
Bob: Well, again, if you’d like to hear the entire conversation, go to our website—
—FamilyLifeToday.com, to download the podcast. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com.
Now, let me remind our regular listeners about the special offer that we’re making this week for you to attend an upcoming Weekend to Remember marriage getaway and save 50 percent off the regular registration fee. This offer is good through the weekend, so if you’d like to attend a getaway you can go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com, you can find out when a getaway is coming to a city near where you live or a city you’d like to visit, mark that weekend out on your calendar, and then call us or go online to register for the getaway. As long as you register this week, you’ll save 50 percent off the regular registration fee.
A few of our getaways are starting to sell out; so again, find out more or register online at FamilyLifeToday.com, and plan to join us as one of these getaways. This really is a great weekend away for you and your spouse to refocus, relax—
—reconnect, and rejuvenate your marriage.
Again, sign up today at FamilyLifeToday.com.
Now, tomorrow we’re going to hear from Tiffany Lee and her husband, Jeremy. Tiffany is better known, perhaps, by her performance name, which is Plumb. She’s a singer/songwriter, and she and Jeremy have been through a very tough season in their marriage. They’re going to share with us about that tomorrow; I hope you can join us for that conversation.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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