The Martin Luther King We Didn’t Know

Martin Luther King believed that the founding principles of the United States required the creation of what he called “the beloved community” — a society that is not driven by making profits, but one that was built by developing relationships of mutual concern and care.

by Sister Eva Lumas

Editor’s note: Sister Eva Lumas shared this beautiful reflection at a tribute to Martin Luther King held at St. Mary’s Center in Oakland on January 15.

When asked to give a short reflection on “The Martin We Didn’t Know,” my first reaction was to wonder what more there was to know about a person whose life had been so public. But, I quickly found that there actually are a number of interesting facts about Martin Luther King that the average person might not know.

For instance, Martin’s birth name was Michael Lewis King. He changed his name when he entered the seminary to become a minister. He was only 15 when he entered Morehouse College. And he spent two summers during his college days picking tobacco in Simsbury, Connecticut, to help pay for his college education.

He is still the youngest man to win the Nobel Peace Prize, which he won at the age of 35. Martin gave the $54,000 prize money, as well as most of his other earnings, to fund the ongoing activities of the Civil Rights Movement — leaving him and his family to live what he called, “relevant poverty” which meant that they lived on what they needed and nothing more.

One of the most surprising things I learned was that Dr. King was not always a brilliant speaker. He only got a “C” in one of his first high school speech classes, even though he would later become one of the most brilliant orators of the 20th century. It just goes to show that even the most brilliant people have to start somewhere.

They need to be encouraged, taught and challenged. They need the opportunity to develop their gifts, and they need to keep company with people who can help them place those gifts at the service of their community.

Most people do not know that Martin Luther King was not the first person asked to lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott that would become the initiating event of the Civil Rights Movement. The fact is that the first person asked to lead the movement said, “No,” but suggested Martin Luther King because his brilliant oratory could bring a compelling force to the movement. Besides that, Martin was not engaged in the petty competitions among ministers that sometimes leads them to serve their own egos instead of serving the Lord.

What most people do not know or remember about Martin Luther King is that he regarded the injustice shown to Black people to be a symbol of the injustice that could be turned on any people when ignorance, greed, privilege or blind ambition are left to rule the day.

Sister Eva Lumas teaches the community at St. Mary’s Center about “The Martin We Didn’t Know.” Janny Castillo photo

Sister Eva Lumas teaches the community at St. Mary’s Center about “The Martin We Didn’t Know.” Janny Castillo photo

 

Martin believed that the founding principles of the United States required the creation of what he called “the beloved community” — a society that is not driven by making profits, but one that was built by developing relationships of mutual concern and care. To that end, as Terry Messman has already reminded us today, this led Martin to promote the Poor People’s Campaign which initiated an “Occupy Movement” that would bring poor people of all races to create a tent city in Washington, D.C., on the National Mall.

Martin wanted to put a face on the poor, and believed this movement would cause legislatures and common folk to challenge the federal budget that was spending more money on the military than defending human rights.

He wanted to challenge the national agenda that was more focused on putting a man on the moon than sending children to school or enabling adults to have meaningful work. He wanted legislators and common folk to know that migrant workers, maids, miners, tradesmen, factory workers, and laborers of every kind all had the right to a living wage.

Today, Martin Luther King would surely support the Homeless Bill of Rights, but more than this, he would be advocating for communal support systems of education, recreation, health care, decent housing, employment, and a living wage that would allow every person to live with dignity, purpose, direction, and hope. He would be advocating for each of us to do whatever we can, big or small, to dream of a better world, and do whatever is necessary to make it a reality.

The Martin we didn’t know is more like the Martin we didn’t see — a man who spent a great deal of time in prayer, a lot of time listening to the noble ambitions of people in pain, a lot of time learning how to harness his anger into a driving force that would not be silent in the face of lies, would not be still in the face of injustice, and would not be pacified by simply dreaming.

He knew, and we must always remember, that the measure of our dignity is not our popularity, but our ongoing commitment to keep on trying to do the right thing!

He would want us to know that the value of our lives is not how often we get beaten down by life, but how often we get up to speak the truth again.

He would want us to know that when you labor for the common good, you inspire others to do the same thing.

He would want us to know that the content of our character is not measured by the poor choices we made in the past, but the life-giving commitments we make for the future.

Martin King would want us to know that we can make the world better if we keep an open-heart, a generous spirit, and a firm resolve to wake up every morning asking, “Lord, what would you have me do?”

Today, he would want us to honor him by turning our own dreams into deeds!

Sister Eva Lumas has been a Professor of Faith and Culture and the Director of Field Education at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley for the past 20 years. She has a Doctorate of Ministry degree and is the Cultural Competency Trainer at St. Mary’s Center in Oakland.

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