Four days after police arrested Rosa Parks for refusing to surrender her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Ala., bus, the young Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. explained the Christian foundation of the civil rights movement he was about to lead.
“I want to say that we are not here advocating violence,” King said in a Dec. 5, 1955, speech at the Holt Street Baptist Church.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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“I want it to be known throughout Montgomery and throughout this nation that we are Christian people,” King said. “We believe in the Christian religion. We believe in the teachings of Jesus. The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest.”
King, a Baptist minister and American patriot whose organization would be called the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, wanted the nation to know that the civil rights movement was rooted in fidelity to Judeo-Christian morality and to America’s founding documents.
“And we are determined here in Montgomery,” King said that day in 1955, “to work and fight until justice ‘runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.’”
In these last words, King was quoting from the Bible — Amos 5:24.
A visitor to the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C., will find 16 statements from King carved in granite there. One is from his 1955 Montgomery speech. In its entirety, it reads: “We are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs ‘down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’”
This is as close as the memorial gets to acknowledging that King was a Christian clergyman who passionately argued that discrimination was wrong because it violated God’s law.
The words “God,” “Jesus” and “Lord” — ever-present in King’s speeches and sermons — are carved nowhere in the stones of the memorial dedicated in his name.
King’s name is repeatedly carved into the memorial. But none of these carvings refer to him as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In all cases, he is called simply “Martin Luther King Jr.”
How important was King’s Christian ministry to him? When he was thrown in the Birmingham jail for marching without a permit on Good Friday 1963, King wrote an open letter expressing disappointment with fellow clergymen who criticized the nonviolent movement to desegregate that city.
“I say it as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen,” said King.
In the same letter, King explained again how the civil rights movement was rooted in traditional Christian morality.
“A just law is a manmade code that squares with the moral law or the law of God,” King said. “An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.”
In this letter, King also again argued that the God-given moral law that demanded equal rights for African Americans was the same God-given moral law on which America was founded.
“We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands,” said King.
“One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, and thus carrying our whole nation back to great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence,” said King.
The granite slabs at the memorial do quote from this famous letter. But they steer clear of King’s invocation of God’s law, the Declaration and the Constitution. Instead they use these words: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever effects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Near the close of his “I Have a Dream” speech” — delivered at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963 — King cites Isaiah 40:4-5.
“I have a dream,” said King, “that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight ‘and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.’
“This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with,” King said. “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope”
On the right side of the granite statue of King at the memorial, the last half of this last sentence is carved in stone: “Out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” The first half of the sentence — “With this faith, we will be able to hew” — is missing.
Yes, the “faith” is missing.
Just a few feet from this statue of King where the word “faith” has been edited from the passage of his “I Have a Dream” speech, there is a similarly secular quote from a sermon reprinted in King’s book, Strength to Love.
At the end of that sermon, King said: “Jesus is eternally right. History is replete with the bleached bones of nations that refused to listen to him.”
The Rev. Martin Luther King was a Christian clergyman who became an American hero by standing up for the God-given rights our nation was founded to protect. It is a shame the name of God cannot be found at his memorial.
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