The Day Martin Luther King Spoke to Me as a Failed Man
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
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.