The following is one of a series of commentaries Religion News Service is running by current pastors of churches where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave major speeches before his assassination 50 years ago.
SAN FRANCISCO (RNS) — In 1954, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was on a flight looking down on sunlit clouds and recalling a lifetime of humiliating experiences with racism.
Even when he was a young boy, white parents hated him just for playing with their children. Now, at the age of 25, he was deciding whether to “escape the long night of segregation” or to accept a call to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala.
The congregation loved the sermon that he had preached there for his application. It was called “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.” Eleven years later he delivered it in the presence of 5,000 people here at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.
As a 23-year-old management consultant living on the beach in Marina del Rey, Calif., I was on an airplane myself when I first read about King’s dilemma. I wondered about my own future and he showed me what it might mean to be a clergy-scholar. Within months I had applied to seminary and begun a lifetime of deep engagement with philosophy, theology and social justice.
King witnessed intense racist hatred, including the murder of his colleagues. His house was bombed. Enemies put a price on his head and yet he could turn decisively away from hate and say, “We have flown the air like birds, and swum the sea like fishes, but we have not learned the simple act of walking the earth like brothers.”
On the day before his death, King talked about being threatened. “I would like to live a long life. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me up to the mountain. … And I’ve seen the promised land. And I may not get there with you … [but] the brotherhood of man will become a reality.”
Reading this, I felt convinced that whatever might happen it was worth giving my whole life to the church and this dream.
So much has transpired since then. The lack of progress at times seems heartbreaking. But even in the lowest moments, this calling has brought me friendships and extraordinary joy. I continue to feel God’s presence more powerfully every day.
Now, 25 years later, I preach in the same Grace Cathedral pulpit where King stood that spring. Since that time I have wrestled with King’s intellectual forebears, with Hegel, Kierkegaard, Thoreau, Wieman, Gandhi, Tillich and Niebuhr. I now appreciate the intellectual projects King left uncompleted, the potential he never had the chance to explore.
As a preacher, I am astonished by King’s gift for using new technologies like television to show the consequences of white supremacy to audiences in every American living room. He forced this nation to confront our American apartheid.
King’s schedule those last days looks superhuman to me, now that I am 50. He preached at Grace Cathedral only three days after delivering the speech that concluded the Selma march, which 25,000 people turned out for at the Alabama state Capitol. And he had spoken in Cleveland just a couple days before that.
Above all, what most impresses me all these years later is the power of King’s message. It is the antithesis to the “America First” slogan. He passionately believed that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He did not propose that we go about solving the world’s problems by excluding others from our care. He could not ignore the suffering of the people in Vietnam even if others thought that the way he spoke out diminished his American civil rights credibility.
That day in 1965 at Grace Cathedral, King said: “All life is interrelated. And we are caught in an inescapable web of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects us all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”
I am grateful that Martin Luther King Jr. said yes to Dexter Avenue Church and became what he ought to be. I am blessed that his dream of a universal brother- and sisterhood has helped me discover who I ought to be.
(The Very Rev. Malcolm Clemens Young is the ninth dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, where King spoke in front of 5,000 people on March 28, 1965, as part of the cathedral’s consecration celebration. Young is also the author of “The Spiritual Journal of Henry David Thoreau.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)