Monday, January 18, 2010


When Martin Luther King, Jr. became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church of Montgomery, Alabama, just up the road a hundred or so miles from my hometown of Monroeville, he was 25 years old and right out of graduate school. He was blessed to be called to that prestigious, middle class congregation right across the street from the statehouse of the Alabama capitol. He had absolutely no intention of getting involved in racial justice and equality. His only goal was to revitalize and grow the church. In fact, his predecessor in the pastoral office at Dexter Avenue was regarded as something of a hothead, a firebrand, and the good folks at Dexter did not want to repeat that kind of pastoral tenure. So, they called an erudite, groomed, well-educated, scholarly young minister right out of his doctoral program at Boston University.

The next year, as Providence would have it, the Montgomery Bus Boycott began. A godly Christian woman named Rosa Parks was arrested because she refused to move to the back of the bus where African-Americans were forced to sit. King was placed on the committee to look into the matter, but still steadfastly refused to take a leadership role.

On a fateful night in December of 1955, the elder pastors of the community came to Dr. King before the worship service that evening and commissioned him to speak to the congregation gathered there. He demurred. He thought he was too young, too inexperienced, too green and untried. He wanted one of the other ministers to take a leadership role. But those wise older pastors gathered around the young man and blessed and anointed him to lead the movement. He took to the sacred desk that night, and delivered a sermon that would mobilize the church of Jesus Christ and transform a nation.

Fast-forward thirteen brief years to a rainy night in Memphis in April of 1968. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference had organized a strike of garbage collectors in Memphis to secure a decent wage. Over a thousand folks had come from all over Memphis that night of April 3 to the Mason Temple to hear King preach. The famous preacher was exhausted. His travel schedule was merciless. The pressure on him was enormous. The FBI had him under surveillance. He was constantly away from his wife and family. The nation was in turmoil. And he did not feel like preaching that evening. He felt like he had nothing to say. He was empty, uninspired. He asked his dear friend, Ralph Abernathy, to take his place at the pulpit that night, but Dr. Abernathy gently rebuked his good friend, saying, “Martin, these people didn’t walk through this storm tonight to hear me.” King then made his way to the Temple and delivered his famous “Mountaintop” sermon that is seared into our consciousness. His only request was for the pianist that night to play, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”

Jana and I had the privilege to hear this account firsthand in 2008 as we received the highest honor of my pastoral career: induction into the Martin Luther King Board of Preachers at Morehouse College in Atlanta. The Rev. Billy Kyles, one of the three men last to see Dr. King alive, was the keynote speaker on that occasion. Rev. Kyles said that the entourage gathered at the Lorraine Hotel had been invited to the Kyles’ home for supper around 6:00 that evening; Mrs. Kyles had cooked a fried chicken supper, a favorite meal for a bunch of preachers. They stepped out on the balcony, an awful shot rang out, and Jerusalem had slain another prophet.

Rev. Kyles wondered aloud with us at Morehouse that day: “Why did God place me there with Dr. King on that April 4, 1968. All these years, I’ve asked God why he had me on that balcony that day. There is nothing special about me. I wasn’t a leader in that group. I couldn’t preach powerfully like King and Abernathy. I didn’t have the personal charisma of those men.” He spoke pensively, slowly, reflectively. Then his countenance brightened. He lifted his face to us, his eyes dancing, and he declared boldly to the eruption of the entire hall at Morehouse, “I now know why I was there: Because every crucifixion has to have a witness!”

There is so much work yet to be done. The dream is not yet reality but is still deferred. On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 2010, let’s remember why God has us here.


Dr. Jay Smith said...

Words to ponder my friend: "Because every crucifixion has to have a witness." Amen.
Are we witnesses to the crucifixion? Are we willing to be crucified for what we believe? Are we willing to act on our beliefs? yes.

Anonymous said...

Hi Pastor Charlie,

I knew you'd be writing on Dr. King today and I'm so glad :)Thanks too for reminding me of Rev. Kyles talk that day about the importance of "standing with" others as they fight their fights, walk their journeys, and rock the world with the message God has given them to preach to a people in need of Truth, justice, and freedom for all.
Blessings & Peace+

Unknown said...

A sobering, yet exhilarating concept! What a calling he had; what a calling we have!

Anonymous said...

Genial fill someone in on and this mail helped me alot in my college assignement. Say thank you you on your information.

Geraldine said...

We all wonder why we are where we are sometimes. It is good that Morehouse knows now why he was there. When I think of that awful day, I feel that I was there. This nation must never forget all this great American did and the sacrifice he had to pay. I loved the way you told the story, Charlie

DR Dan said...

I love to hear your inspiring thoughts. Congratulations on the Board of Preachers induction, high honor indeed from a group who appreciates good preaching.

Charlie Johnson said...

It's divinely ironic-- and Providential-- that once a year our entire nation stops and reflects on the impact of a Christian servant and preacher. Thanks, friends, for celebrating King's legacy with me.

Anonymous said...

Well I agree but I think the collection should have more info then it has.

James Aydelott said...

My favorite King quote (from memory, I'll probably get this wrong):

"We're not what we're gonna be. We're not what we ought to be. But praise God, we're not what we used to be."

KB said...

Good stuff man. King was a great brother in Christ and his last speech before death still stirs my soul...

what is the bible?

Chaplain John C. said...

Thanks for this post. My favorite is the drum major sermon. Walking in Love and faith takes courage against hate. Lets remember what he stood for biblically in call to America to live out the founder's creed and covenant connection to God inspired freedoms for everyone as a citizen.

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