My Favorite Agitator

Daily Prompt: Churn

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. , I am sharing an article I wrote about him about five years ago. The verb churn means to agitate. To agitate is to stir things up or to arouse public concern over an issue in the hope of prompting action. He certainly did that.

A Drum Major for Justice

My husband received a couple of books about Martin Luther King, Jr. as gifts – A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of MLK, Jr. and Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. [Stephen B. Oates]. I read part way through the first book and decided I would rather read the biography. The biography gave me a better understanding of the monumental struggle for racial equality in this country and a great appreciation for King’s inspirational leadership of his people. But reading about King’s life also taught me several lessons about standing up for social justice today.

1. God and Human Worth.  In explaining the timing of the civil rights movement, King noted that blacks had gradually learned to value themselves even as they continued to experience the humiliating effects of segregation and discrimination. One reason behind this increasing sense of self-worth was their Christian faith. When you believe that  you were created in God’s image and that God loved you enough to send his Son to die for your sins, you understand that you have worth as a human being regardless of your color.


Those of us who call the name of Jesus Christ find something at the center of our faith which forever reminds us that God is on the side of truth and justice.  – MLK, The Current Crisis in Race Relations

The worth of an individual does not lie in the measure of his intellect, his racial origin, or his social position. Human worth lies in his relatedness to God. – MLK, The Ethical Demands for Integration


King often referred to his brothers and sisters as “children of God.” The New Testament describes the believer’s relationship to God as a relationship based on faith in Christ, a relationship that is demonstrated by love for our fellow-man.


So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. – Galatians 3:26-29


This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister. – 1 John 3:10


2. Using God’s Gifts for Good. King was an intelligent man, educated, and well-read. He could have been an attorney or a college professor or lived the quiet, relatively peaceful life of a clergyman. Instead, he chose to help his people begin the struggle against oppression from the segregated city of Birmingham, Alabama. One of his greatest gifts was his way with words. He used colorful language and the tone of his voice to inspire, motivate and persuade. He repeated key phrases (“I have a dream…”) and sprinkled his speeches and writings with metaphors. In the I Have a Dream speech, he compared the march for justice to cashing a check that has been returned marked “insufficient funds.” He compared the Declaration of Independence to a promissory note. He understood the importance of choosing your words carefully because words can have negative connotations. He objected to the words “black power,” which could suggest violence and the same sort of racial supremacy that he was fighting against.


3. Shedding Light on the Darkness of our Times. King showed the world that the Emancipation Proclamation did not put an end to racism. Though blacks were no longer slaves, they still faced the degradation of segregation and discrimination one hundred years later. Today, fifty years after the March on Washington, it is shocking to me to read about the state of racial relations in our country at that time and to read about how hateful whites were towards blacks. Racial discrimination is a dark and ugly sickness of the soul that is completely at odds with God’s will. In my opinion, we have not come far enough in fifty years, but I am grateful that King exposed racism for the evil that it is. He made a difference.
4. Courage. It takes a great deal of spiritual courage to stand up for what is right, especially when you know that it puts your life at risk. King knew that his actions as a civil rights activist put him in physical danger and that he would likely lose his life for his cause. When he was arrested, he chose to be jailed rather than pay a fine because he wanted to highlight how unjust the laws were. He bravely led marches in some of the most racist cities in the South. He turned threats into opportunities. With his notoriety, being jailed brought national attention to the civil rights movement.
5. Serving Others. A couple of months before his assassination, in a sermon called “The Drum Major Instinct,” King preached about the natural instinct people have to be first. He quoted Jesus Christ who said “whosoever will be great among you, shall be your servant; and whosoever of you who will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all.”

We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade. – MLK

Although King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he wanted to be remembered as someone who gave his life to serving others, as a man who loved others, cared for the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the imprisoned.


If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; I was a drum major for righteousness.

If I can do my duty as a Christian ought, if I can bring salvation to a world once wrought, if I can spread the message as the master taught, then my living will not be in vain.

6. Loving Your Enemies. Other civil rights activists chose to fight against racial inequality with violence; King chose to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. There was a moment when he hated whites for the way they treated blacks but he understood that hate begets hate; violence begets violence. He admired Gandhi and used Gandhi’s life as an example of how to live out Christ’s love in the pursuit of justice. King often talked about the concept of agape, the selfless, sacrificial kind of love described in the Bible. As Jesus noted, it is easy to love those who love you; anyone can do that.


You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. – Matthew 5:43-48

7. God’s Redeeming Grace. King’s image as an American hero was tarnished by allegations that he was an adulterer. There is some evidence of this. J. Edgar Hoover was so determined to dig up dirt on King that the FBI bugged his hotel rooms and tapped his phone lines. I mention King’s sin last, not to minimize it, but because at the end of the day, even our heroes have feet of clay. The biographer, Stephen B. Oates, quoted King as saying that “Each of us is two selves and the great burden of life is to always try to keep that higher self in command. Don’t let the lower self take over.”

The apostle Paul wrote about his own struggle to keep the higher self in command (Romans 7:14-20). When Paul prayed about his own weaknesses, the Lord told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” To borrow King’s metaphor, God’s bank of mercy always has sufficient funds.

When I read about King’s  assassination, I felt grief even though he died years ago. He was a drum major for justice, for peace and for righteousness. I also feel thankful for his “marching band” – the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement. They marched for justice, rode the bus for justice, sat at segregated lunch counters for justice, even gave their lives for justice.

Here are King’s own words from his Nobel prize acceptance speech, wherein he honored the “ground crew” for enabling the “flights to freedom” to leave the ground:


Most of these people will never make the headlines and their names will not appear in Who’s Who. Yet the years have rolled past and when the blazing light of truth is focused on this marvelous age in which we live–men and women will know and children will be taught that we have a finer land, a better people, a more noble civilization–because these humble children of God were willing to suffer for righteousness’ sake.

We need more people in this world with the courage to stand up for justice. We need more people who know how to love sacrificially.


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