Martin Luther King Jr. was born to be the change in one of the most cathartic periods of American history. He was not a mediator per se. Prayer brought him to an inner stillness, from which a deep and profound voice guided him. A great meditator and Kriya yogi, Mahatma Gandhi, showed him the way to put this voice into actions that changed the world.
King read about Gandhi and his satyagraha movement in theology school. Gandhi epitomized for King how Christian love and peace can be used as a transformative strategy and tool for social change.
King would put non-violence in action during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, in collaboration with other black pacifists. The power and the dignity of non-violence was both a path to freedom for African Americans and the “morally excellent” way to deal with the injustices of racism.
The boycott lasted for more than a year. People in the African American community walked to work, endured harassment, violence and intimidation. King’s home was bombed.
“We came to see that, in the long run, it is more honorable to walk in dignity than to ride in humiliation…we decided to substitute tired feet for tired souls…” he said.
Lawsuits and appeals made their way through the courts to the US Supreme Court. Montgomery was forced to end its law mandating segregated public transportation.
One day in 1956, King received an epiphany, after yet another threat to blow up his home and family unless he left town. King heard an inner voice calling him by name. The voice summoned him to stand up for TRUTH, stand up for JUSTICE and stand up for RIGHTEOUSNESS.
King understood that he not only had to find his courage, but lose his fear of death. He would later say “It is not how long you live but how well.”
King heard this voice in his moment of fear, and he walked into his destiny. He became the face and the voice of the Civil Rights Movement.
“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community, which has constantly refused to negotiate, is forced to confront the issue.”
On August 28, 1963, the March on Washington drew more than 200,000 to Washington, D.C. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, his deep inner voice bellowed again and King made his I Have a Dream Speech.
King had agreed to speak last as everyone else wanted an earlier slot to get the media exposure. His plan was to speak for only a few minutes from a prepared speech.
But another voice would come forth. Gospel avatar, Mahalia Jackson had just finished a classic spiritual. She stood behind King. The crowd was stirred by her voice; the emotional tenor of the moment rose. King began his prepared remarks, but Jackson called out to him, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin, tell ‘em about the dream!”
The dream was a theme he had alluded to in earlier speeches. King had a special bond with the singer Jackson and often called her for solace during his most troubling moments. He abandoned his prepared notes.
“It was as if some cosmic transcendental force came down and occupied his body…” recalled Speechwriter Clarence Jones.
In those stirring moments, the resonance of freedom vibrated throughout America. After the March on Washington, the country could no longer refuse the rights of African Americans. Americans of all races and creeds began to push back and question the country’s Jim Crow laws and the oppression of its citizens.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregation in public accommodations and publicly owned facilities. Later that year, King received the Nobel Peace Prize.
“We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards justice.”
A national memorial holiday gives us all a moment to pause and recognize the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. Schools, public buildings and avenues across the nation bear his name. Left to just his personal desires, he likely would have preferred a quiet life, dedicating his energy and devotion to his community and family.
Instead, King responded to an inner voice, to a calling, to be the change.
King articulated a destiny and vision of genuine equality and brotherhood. In the face of violence, he chose to release his fear of death, to stand for democracy and social justice, to be peace in his very being, his every action.
“Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.”
Yogis, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, spiritual-but-not-religious, we can all come to stillness, hear our inner voice, and be the peace for our corner of the world.