Rarely are larger-than-life historical figures relatable as human beings. For me, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a character of history books and film strips. A man to be admired for his empowering speeches and his inspirational marches. Although I knew he was a towering preacher, a man of God, I never thought of him as a person wrestling with his own weaknesses, grappling with his own frailties and contradictions.

That is, until I heard this part of his "Unfulfilled Dreams" sermon (audio above) given in the final months of his life:

"The question I want to raise this morning with you: Is your heart right? If your heart isn't right, fix it up today. Get God to fix it up. Get somebody to be able to say about you, "He may not have reached the highest height, he may not have realized all of his dreams, but he tried." Isn't that a wonderful thing for somebody to say about you? "He tried to be a good man. He tried to be a just man. He tried to be an honest man. His heart was in the right place." And I can hear a voice saying, crying out through the eternities, "I accept you. You are the recipient of my grace because it was in your heart! And it is so well that it was within thine heart."

I don't know this morning about you, but I can make a testimony. You don't need to go out this morning saying that Martin Luther King is a saint. Oh, no. I want you to know this morning that I'm a sinner like all of God's children! But I want to be a good man! And I want to hear a voice saying to me one day, "I take you in and I bless you, because you try. It is well that it was within thine heart." What's in your heart this morning? If you get your heart right."

For a man without religious convictions or a spiritual mooring, I heard a sermon in that moment that spoke to my own vulnerabilities as a husband and a father, as a son and a friend. And he does it in the most honest way: by asking, at least in my hearing, for understanding and forgiveness from his congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church — the church his father founded — in Atlanta, Georgia.

You see, I've never been all that comfortable with the language of sin. It's often wielded as weapon in one's quest for a supernatural resting place. So often this language strips a man of his dignity, makes him feel small, inconsequential, a cog in a nasty machine.

But Dr. King in this sermon elevates the human spirit by making himself vulnerable. The language of sin is human frailty united with goodness and desire. We long to be more than we are, and stumble many times along the way. Dr. King expresses that goodness and frailty inside all of us. He points the finger at himself. He holds my hand and says come walk beside me and take stock of your life. He tells me not to shrink but to acknowledge, repent, and stride forward. He lets me know that being one of the fallen is to be a divine creature. He lets me know that striving to be a good man, a good father, a good husband, is part of the journey — that one's quest to be more than his basest self is redeeming, and flawed.

Dr. King’s context was the '60s and civil rights. You hear a gentle leader at his most prescient; he would be killed a month later in Memphis, Tennessee. The tension and anxiety in this sermon are palpable, thick with a foreboding awareness that his life's work would be coming to an end.

His legacy today endures in so many ways. But, for me, it's the preacher in the pulpit who called me back to my own humanity, rescuing me from abject despair. In that moment one spring night several years ago, he reminded me, “It’s alright. Keep on trying.” I want to be a good man.

Our colleagues next door at American RadioWorks just released a riveting documentary about the last year of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life.

Share Your Reflection



Not only is it all right to keep on trying. Just don't forget the other part. "I accept you". Dr. King listed a very important and oft forgotten element. Grace. The voice of acceptance. 

Well said. Thank you for reminding me.

What a gift this post is.  Thank you so much.

Many thanks for your kind words.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was "a man to be admired for his empowering speeches and his
inspirational marches."  Indeed. But as his writings unearthed by the King Papers Project in association with Stanford University now reveal, a man who also need not shy the company of the intellectual giants of the ages.

Of course one need not, as King did, to have read and admired Immanuel Kant -no friend of religion, even less so of Christianity, to, as King did, have "had doubts that religion was intellectually respectable".

Dr. King's recognition of the Christian Church as "the greatest preserver of the status quo" and so, "one of the chief exponents of racial bigotry" is no less lucid.  It led him to write: "I can conclude that the church, in its present state, is not the hope of the world.  I believe that nothing has so persistently and effectively blocked the way of salvation as the church."

Dr. King ended up going with Mahatma Gandhi's (everyone's favorite Christian honoris causa) methods. However, most erosive of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Christian credentials and at the same time perhaps elevating him to the august company of the likes of great deists such as Baruch Spinosa and Thomas Jefferson, is King's finding of the divinity, the virgin birth, and the resurrection of Christ as "historically and philosophically untenable", and "incompatible with all scientific knowledge". *

Had Dr. King had  time to spend with contemporaries of his, say, like a Richard Feynman, an Albert Einstein or a Bertrand Russell, chances are that with his keen intellect and intellectual honesty he would have taken that final logical step and taken his leave of any remaining vestige of a god and the supernatural.

*Volume I, 13 September to 23 November 1949

"What Experiences of Christians Living in the
Early Christian Century Led to the Christian Doctrines of the Divine
Sonship of Jesus, the Virgin Birth, and the Bodily Resurrection"

[13 September-23 November 1949][Chester, Pa.]

This is all fine and good, but Dr.King was more than a God -fearing Christian man and minister.but what I have read here and what I heard on Krista Tippet's program failed to reveal that one of Dr.King's major priorities was economic justice. His vision went far beyond the "I have a dream speech" to concern about the injustice about the Vietnam War, the Black sanitation workers' Issues in Tenessee and other examples he cited of economic injustice. THis is the problem I have with shows like "on being".They tend to marginalize sociall and economic justice issues withhigh sounding rhetoric of "love communities" , "spiritual values", and "positive thinking " among other things.

Yes, at root Dr. King was a man of Christian faith but the problem ,I have with essays like this is that they tend to as someone else put it"freeze Dr.Kinga" in an image that doesn't threaten the staus quo as Dr.King ,himself did. King was also a social activist who was working for economic justice in concert with the black sanitation workers in Tenessee when he was shot. His legacy goes far beyond his personal struggles and his theology.

Thank you Krista for presenting this on Dr King. I was 71/2 years old when he was assassinated. My mother and father participated in marches that were held locally in my hometown and state of Louisiana. It was a very sad day, I remember my mother crying as if her own father had died. My dad and his brothers all crying and pacing the floor. There was a curfew that day, but somehow we all managed to pack into our churches that evening and we had a prayer watch. We sang songs, and the ministers and deacon's prayed. Even though it was never the same after that, there was progress that I know that Dr King wanted to see. The progress came slow, eventually all signs of segregation were removed, everyone was allowed to enter the front door of public transportation,of restaurants and movie theaters; etc. African Americans were allowed to vote without fear, expand their education a schools of their choice. We are not yet entirely free, but we must continue the progress.
It is interesting to note that Dr King was despondent, it seems that most true messengers have those moments. Mother Theresa was an example of one who gave all that she had to help the poor, and at some point maybe the awfulness of the poverty she fought so hard, overwhelmed even her. We are human after all, and she made a statement that she felt that God no longer "spoke" to her, no longer did she feel him in her prayers. But she continued the work. I am sure that many "messengers" and people who wear out their lives doing good for their fellow man, have these moments. But the urge to continue outweighs the need to run.

Trent Gilliss's picture

You are most welcome, Ramona!

I was moved by this powerful piece... I want to point us to the part of his preaching about Grace...Because of grace, inspite of our failures, we can get up and try again. First get your heart right, then ask for His help, and His Grace will fiavor you.

Proverbs 24:16
For a just man fall etc seven times, and riseth up again; but the wicked shall fall into mischief. Here is wisdom.
1. A promise to the just (the man who heart is right with God)
2. A consequence for the wicked ( the sinner who rejects God's Grace)
Choose you this day what kind of man you want to be.
Wisdom Speaks: Your choice does not change God's love for you but it does have consequences.

Romans 11:6 says, "And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works (nothing you can do to merit God's grace no matter how hard you try) for all of our righteousness is as filthy rags. So if it were (by works), grace would no longer be grace. For GRACE is the unmerited favor of God. Thank God for Grace. For Without God We Can Do Nothing... In Him we live (breath) move and have our being. The old preacher said... He woke me up this morning and started me on my way - and I am glad about it.