By Hannah Lounsbery, Faith Co-Editor
April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed standing on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. Prior to his assassination, the Nobel Peace Prize winner faced threats from white supremacists, who firebombed his home in 1956, and from J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, according to articles from both the New York Times and Washington Post.
Dr. King is most often remembered for his work to end segregation and fight for th rights of African Americans during the civil rights movement with peaceful protests including the Montgomery Bus Boycott, sit-ins and marches.
The battle for the rights of African Americans, however, is not the only thing that he was fighting when he was killed. King was in Memphis to support the city’s striking public workers as they fought for their right to a union that would ensure safe working conditions and fair wages.
“Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day?” he said in a speech two weeks prior to his death. “And they are making wages so low that
they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation.”
King’s appearance in Memphis was not a one time show of solidarity. Throughout his work, King spoke out against economic injustice and the ever-widening gap between
rich and poor in America. He saw a connection between the working poor and African American citizens and strove to advocate for them both.
King also spoke at a convention for the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations December of 1961.
“Our needs are identical with labor’s needs — decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow [and] have education for their children and respect in the community.”
King was fighting for the rights of American workers just as fervently as he was fighting for the civil rights of African Americans.
Some will say that King aligned himself with the labor issue simply as a way to raise support for civil rights issues. After all, many of the unions that King worked alongside donated funds to those fighting for civil rights and showed their support for sit-ins and freedom rides, and economic freedom for the working class was necessary for African Americans to have equal opportunities with their white peers.
“What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?” King said in March of 1968.
While all of these elements likely played a role in King’s fight for poor American laborers, his faith may have played a bigger role. Religious language was widely used in King’s public speaking, notably in the “Mountaintop” speech that he gave the night before he was killed.
“I just want to do God’s will,” King said. “And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”
Through his faith, and not just his political ideals, Martin Luther King Jr. moved hearts and changed minds across the nation. Through the lens of his belief, King saw a group of people who were marginalized and mistreated – just like the people that Jesus chose to spend his time with.
He was willing to view the issues facing his people and his time period through the lens of Scripture and determined that the Lord demanded he do something about
it. And he did. Are today’s Christians willing to do the same?
Social justice issues stand at the forefront of life today, but not at the forefront of the church. While segregation no longer exists, racism still does. In this conversation and many others, Christians are remaining silent.
While church members are sorting through their beliefs regarding gun control, women’s rights, immigration and homosexuality, the church is providing no opportunities for members to discuss them.
Christians need to discuss these issues with fellow Christians. They need to pray together for immigrants and argue with one another about the second amendment. They
need the spiritual authorities in their lives to tell them that it’s okay to talk about this issues in their lives and that through Scripture and the Holy Spirit, it is possible to find solutions.
Churches and the believers within them are meant to change the world. Martin Luther King Jr. died 50 years ago because the Word told him that the current state of his world was unacceptable. If men like King can die trying to change the world, the church can at least talk about it.