Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t start out who he ended up being. He didn’t set out to be a visionary leader, intent on making a dramatic impact on the country and culture of his day. He didn’t choose “leader of a mass civil rights movement” from a list of vocational options. His identity emerged gradually as he listened and prayed and read and participated and took the risks to creatively respond to the needs around him. Slowly, layer by layer, choice by choice, he became himself.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a well educated minister of a local church, husband and father, a dedicated preacher who devoted hours to preparing sermons that were theologically sound and probing. He wasn’t interested in a new identity. But he was interested in the writings of Henry David Thoreau about civil disobedience and Gandhi’s thoughts about nonviolence. And he became interested in folks who felt discriminated by racial injustice and his town that was beginning to take a stand. He didn’t have answers. But he followed the questions toward becoming more of himself.
It was within hours after a seamstress named Rosa Parks had “sat down for what she believed” the organizing clergy of Montgomery named him as spokesperson for a fledgling resistance movement. He knew at a gut level that he was being asked to move beyond words and ideas and put theory into practice. To continue to abide by the injustice he saw was to be a perpetrator of the evil he deplored.
Twenty minutes later the same young man who had a reputation for giving sermons only after hours of preparation was standing before a crowd of about 4,000 people speaking extemporaneously of the challenges and opportunities that lay before them. He said:
Sometimes a person just gets tired…. We are here this evening to say to those who have mistreated us so long that we are tired–tired of being segregated and humiliated, tired of being kicked by the brutal feet of oppression…. We come here tonight to be saved from the patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.
What about us? Are we still becoming ourselves? Are our deepest callings still unfolding, beyond our imagination? Or have we become too patient with being less than we really are?