In his excellent new book, Never To Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King Jr.(Fortress Press), Vanderbilt University religion professor Lewis V. Baldwin examines an undervalued aspect of the civil rights movement’s effectiveness. With vivid stories and a scholar’s eye for the telling detail, Baldwin brings to the forefront the centrality of this vital spiritual discipline in both King’s public ministry and his personal devotion. Baldwin’s tome is a worthy and necessary addition to the annals of MLK scholarship. The following is an excerpt from the book.
Prayer helped Martin Luther King Jr. to discover the activity of God not only in his own daily life and activities but also in the needs of humanity and in the challenges of the world. He saw the many movements for freedom in his time as outpourings of God’s spirit on the nation and the world, and prayer went hand in hand with his spirited call to resist systemic, social evil in all forms. This view of prayer’s connection to God’s work in the world, perhaps more than anything else, reflected King’s vital and distinctive blend of spirituality and social vision as well as his keen sense of the tremendous value and creative potential of prayer. It also explains why King made prayer central to the struggle for civil and human rights.
As far as King was concerned, he was involved in essentially “a spiritual movement” and not simply a struggle for equal rights, social justice, and peace; this invariably meant that prayer and praying, much like the spiritual discipline of nonviolence, had to be for him a daily activity and a total way of life. Otherwise, the quest to redeem and transform the moral and political spirit of the nation and of humanity as a whole would ultimately prove futile and perhaps even counterproductive.
King’s encounters with crisis after crisis in his protest against the personal and institutional racism of white America reinforced his conception of prayer as lived experience and as part of engaged spirituality developed in the midst of conflict and action. It is often said that the movement began with a song, but in King’s case it actually began with a prayer.
Visions and Victories
The date was December 5, 1955; the scene was King’s private study in his home at 309 South Jackson Street in Montgomery; and the challenge was a speech that he, as the newly-elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), the organization formed to lead the bus boycott, had to hastily prepare for the very first mass meeting held at the Holt Street Baptist Church in connection with the bus boycott. Having only fifteen minutes to prepare what he called “the most decisive speech of my life,” King, “obsessed by” feelings of “inadequacy” and in “a state of anxiety,” turned to that “power whose matchless strength stands over against the frailties and inadequacies of human nature.” King prayed for God’s guidance in delivering a speech that would be “militant enough” to arouse black people to “positive action” and “moderate enough” to keep their fervor “within controllable and Christian bounds.”
The speech, which called boycotters to courageous protest grounded in Christian love and democratic values, evoked more applause than any speech or sermon King had given up to that point, thus reinforcing his belief that God had the power to “transform” human weakness into a “glorious opportunity.” This experience confirmed King’s faith in what his ancestors had long declared about the sheer discipline, immense potential, and enduring power of prayer; and it highlighted his sense of the significance of prayer as lived theology.
As the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and a leader in the bus boycott, King increasingly came to see that secret communication with God in his private study or “closet,” so to speak, was as important as praying publicly in his pulpit. Evidently, he had other private experiences during which prayer translated a paralyzing impotence into unshakable courage, frustrating uncertainty into incurable hope, and life’s hardships into amazing vitality and feelings of triumph. In January, 1956, as the fervor driving the Montgomery bus boycott reached fever pitch, King received a telephone call at midnight from a racist who called him a “nigger” and threatened to kill him and “blow up” his home.
Deeply disturbed and unable to sleep, King retreated to his kitchen for coffee, thinking that this could possibly provide some relief. Love for family and church, devotion to the struggle, and feelings of utter helplessness gripped him in that moment of deep restlessness, painful stillness, and desperate searching. Knowing that the theology he had studied in the corridors of academia could not help him and that he had nowhere else to turn, King had a face-to-face encounter with what he, in the tradition of his forebears, called “a Waymaker,” exposing his fears, insecurities, and vulnerabilities with sincerity and humility. Great comfort came as an “inner voice” spoke to King, reminding him that he was not alone, commanding him to “stand up” for righteousness, justice, and truth, and assuring him that “lo, I will be with you, even to the end of the world.”
This serendipitous experience further convinced King that hardship, frustration, and bewilderment are often the points at which one meets God through solitude and prayer, a notion clearly substantiated by the black experience in religion. In that moment of quiet brooding, commonly referred to as “the vision in the kitchen,” King found new life in prayer, was reminded that prayer indeed mattered, and began to believe anew in how the sovereign work of the Almighty was being manifested in both his own life and in the bus protest. Moreover, the experience deepened his sense of what it meant to follow Jesus Christ as a passionate disciple, and he came to see that prayer would be a vital dimension of that which enabled him sufficiently to carry out his work. In a general sense, the experience in the kitchen further equipped King to speak from experience and thus authoritatively about the saving power of prayer. The spiritual growth wrought by that experience would become increasingly essential in sustaining King’s commitment to nonviolent struggle and in determining the nature of his responses to crises in his life.
Public Acts of Prayer
Considering the social, economic, and political dynamics at work in the 1950s, King was always willing and eager to assume the role of public prayer leader. In fact, he felt that praying publicly was central to his calling as a national leader and especially to his role as the voice of spiritual people imbued with a messianic sense of vocation and mission. He saw that public prayer, like the singing of the spirituals and anthems of the movement, was a powerful aspect of the spirituality that bonded his people in the face of oppression and that gave them the will and determination to survive, struggle, and be free, even against seemingly invincible odds. Again and again, King received practical lessons in the unifying power of public prayer from ordinary church folk who were forced to drift in and out of the disturbed world of white racists, who were the embodiments of lived faith, who had literally built churches and kept families and neighborhoods together by “talking to de Lawd” and making painful sacrifices.
King’s role as public prayer leader extended into his activities as both a pastor and civil rights leader. Much like the worship experience at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the board meetings of the MIA always included prayers, songs, scripture readings, and speeches, all of which reflected a nonviolent tone, and King, as the organization’s chairman, often gave the opening or closing prayer. At times, MIA board members such as Willie F. Alford, Ralph W. Hilson, G. Franklin Lewis, and B.D. Lambert, all clergymen, were asked to offer the invocation and prayer as part of the benediction. King constantly highlighted the need to remain in a prayerful mood and considering the challenges his people faced daily, and he insisted that MIA decisions regarding the boycott be carefully “thought about” and “prayed over” before being implemented through practical action
King himself occasionally became quite emotional while praying at mass meetings, especially after protesters were attacked and homes and churches bombed by white bigots. “Discouraged” and “revolted by the bombing,” and feeling “a personal sense of guilt” for all these problems, King was on one occasion close to tears as he asked the audience to join him in prayer. While “asking God’s guidance and direction,” King was caught in “the grip of an emotion” he “could not control” and actually “broke down in public.” His prayer built an exuberant sung finale, with the audience crying out and rejoicing. “So intense was the reaction” that King could not finish his prayer. With the help of fellow ministers, who put their arms around him, King was slowly lowered to his seat.
Here was an occasion when the traditional prayer meeting served to solidify a despised and abused people around a common faith, hope, purpose, and strategy for change. Though caught in the web of guilt and emotion, King did not stand alone, for the sense of being both suffering community and divinely ordained instrument for much-needed social change proved overwhelming for all who participated.
The emotive qualities of the black church, which often exploded into handclapping and joyous shouts, and which King had frowned on as a boy, took on a new and more personal dimension for the civil rights leader. Prayer rose to sermon, tears gave way to rejoicing, and King’s calm manner surrendered to an infectious frenzy. Hence, King’s connection to the ecstatic side of the black prayer tradition and to the African American worship experience as a whole became amazingly real. Clearly, scholars must take this and other of King’s experiences concerning public prayer in the civil rights crusade more seriously if they are to bring a true sense of the richness and power of the black church experience to the daunting work of King interpretation.
Excerpted from Never To Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King Jr. by Lewis V. Baldwin. Used by permission of Fortress Press.