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MLK's granddaughter: We will fulfill my grandfather's dream
03:24 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Jeff Kelly Lowenstein is the Padnos/Sarosik Endowed Professor of Civil Discourse at Grand Valley State University and the founder and executive director of the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ). The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.

CNN  — 

Annual observances of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday almost invariably include his stirring “I have a dream” speech delivered at the Lincoln Memorial on a sweltering day in August 1963.

Jeff Kelly Lowenstein

But a little-known incident in 1956 – which sparked a crisis of faith and forced King to confront his worst fears – sheds valuable light on the ways he drew on his spiritual beliefs to persist in the face of steep obstacles and his increasing certainty that he would be killed.

King’s struggle to keep fighting for racial justice not only provides a more grounded vision of the late civil rights leader, but also shows how we can learn from his experiences to continue the long and arduous push for our country to fulfill its lofty promises of equality at a precarious moment in our democracy.

His spiritual quandary occurred in his Montgomery, Alabama, kitchen late one evening in January 1956. King was still a relative newcomer to the city when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a White rider.

But just four days after Parks’ arrest, King became the president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, an organization founded by Black ministers and community leaders that would go on to play a pivotal role in guiding the boycott, negotiating with city leaders and soliciting nationwide support.

King’s new role put him in the spotlight, and he began receiving threatening phone calls. One, in particular, unnerved him more than the others.

“On the other end was an ugly voice,” he recounted in a speech he gave in Chicago more than a decade later. “That voice said to me, in substance, ‘N—er, we are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow up your house.’”

King went to his kitchen to try to calm himself, reflecting on the theology he had learned as a student. He meditated on his beautiful little girl and lovely wife and how they could be taken from him at any moment.

Nothing worked.

Like George Floyd, whose anguished cries would ring out more than a half century later on a Minneapolis street, King thought of his mother.

“Something said to me, you can’t call on Daddy now, he’s up in Atlanta a hundred and seventy-five miles away,” he said. “You can’t even call on Mama now. You’ve got to call on that something in that person that your Daddy used to tell you about. That power that can make a way out of no way. And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me and I had to know God for myself.”

King bowed his head over a cup of coffee and asked for help from God. “And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.”

He went on to say that Jesus “promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.”

Newly fortified, King kept going. Just three days after the phone call, King’s house was bombed while his wife and daughter were at home. Although no one was injured, an angry crowd hungry for vengeance gathered at the home. Still, he maintained his call for nonviolence. The boycott ultimately went on for 381 days, ending after the US Supreme Court ruled that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional, striking another blow against the legalized apartheid that had ruled the South for more than a half-century.

King went on to found and lead the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, win the Nobel Peace Prize and become arguably the most prominent figure in a movement that played a singular role in passing landmark federal civil rights and voting legislation.

But he grappled with doubts throughout the rest of his life. He closed the Chicago speech by recounting the challenges he faced and how they led him to question if his life had made a difference in the world:

“And I don’t mind telling you this morning that sometimes I feel discouraged. I felt discouraged in Chicago. As I move through Mississippi and Georgia and Alabama, I feel discouraged. Living every day under the threat of death, I feel discouraged sometimes. Living every day under extensive criticisms, even from Negroes, I feel discouraged sometimes. Yes, sometimes I feel discouraged and feel my work’s in vain. But then the holy spirit revives my soul again. ‘There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.’”

This raw passage gives insight into the many sources of strain King endured toward the end of his life. He struggled to gain traction during the 1966 campaign in Chicago against slum housing conditions. He was struck by a rock during a march in Marquette Park, and the brutal racism he and others experienced led King to later say that the people of Mississippi “ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate.” The campaign ended with a controversial agreement that led some observers to label the movement largely ineffective.

That same year, a split emerged between King, who had long been a proponent of nonviolence, and the activist Stokely Carmichael and Black Power advocates who derided his commitment to nonviolent change. Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. sided with the Black Power adherents and mocked King by calling him, “Martin Loser King.”

The FBI’s years-long surveillance campaign, which included sending King a letter suggesting that he commit suicide, had drained him. So, too, had the death threats that were a continual part of his life ever since Montgomery. “This is what is going to happen to me also,” he told his wife after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. “I keep telling you, this is a sick society,” he said.

Far from the towering, unruffled figure depicted in the 30-foot statue erected on the Washington Mall in 2011, and in classrooms across the country, the King that emerges in the speech he delivered in Chicago just a year before his death is a vulnerable man wrestling with despondency, yet drawing on his bedrock faith to carry on.

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    Beset by a devastating pandemic, the failed insurrection at the US Capitol, the uncertain fate of our democracy, and our nation’s searing economic inequality and racial injustice, it’s far too easy to become discouraged. But whether we are religiously oriented or not, looking at King’s struggle for courage can shift our understanding of the civil rights leader and point a way forward during this dark period in our nation’s history. Rather than seeing him as a near-mythical icon, learning about King’s fears can provide us the necessary inspiration to push through our own doubts and find our own sources of strength. And, buttressed by his example, we can continue to press our nation to be fair, open and just with the same tenacity he exhibited until his assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968.