Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

When I remember the brief and intense life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I think of the haunting quatrain by Edna St. Vincent Millay:

My candle burns at both ends;

It will not last the night;;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends-

It gives lovely light!

He was just 39 years old, in the prime of life, when he was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee by a hired assassin. They intended to be rid of the trouble-maker and disturber of the peace. The racists reasoned that if they killed the leader, the "Movement" would die. So, they killed him, and he was not even 40 years old.

His enemies made a terrible miscalculation, they killed him, but he would not stay dead. He has become more powerful in death than in life. His dream has bloomed into a reality far beyond the most hopeful expectations anyone had while he was alive, or even had he lived a long life advocating his dream. Today, 44 years after his death, he continues to show up like "Banquo's Ghost". Hundreds of thousands of people across the nation will meet and march this week to celebrate his life and commit themselves to the ideals for which he lived and died.

We share a common memory of this man whose life continues to cast a "lovely light" across the landscape and into the dark corners of our life together in America. I have a personal memory of Dr. King that has played an important role in defining my journey in the civil rights movement.

Near the end of my third year in seminary at Emory University in Atlanta, I was a student-pastor of a circuit of four churches near Phenix City, Alabama. I commuted to Emory each Monday and returned each weekend to serve my churches.One Friday night in early 1955 I received a call from my mentor, the Rev. Welton Gregory. He said, "Tom, I want you to be in Montgomery at 7:30 tomorrow morning. A group of us are going Talladega to spend the day with a young black Baptist minister who has just been called to be pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. We believe his is going to have a creative influence in race relations in Alabama. His name is Martin Luther King, Jr."

I tried in vain to explain my situation to Rev. Gregory. I told him that I had just gotten home from Emory and I had lots of work waiting on me. He dismissed each excuse I made. Finally he said to me, "This is a very important meeting. I expect you to be here at 7:30 in the morning." With that he hung up the telephone, and I was there at 7:30 the next morning.

About a dozen of us spent that day with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ten months before the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Dr. King was the first educated black person I had ever met. I do not quite know how to describe what I thought and felt during that unforgettable experience. I can say that I felt something begin to crumble in my heart and mind as the residue of a multitude of accumulated prejudices of a life-time began to melt away. I had never met a more intelligent, articulate, and gentle man in my life. He was completely at ease with a dozen white clergy. We had lunch together and spent about 3 hours listening to Dr. King and discussing the racial problems in Alabama.

Little did we realize as we traveled home that afternoon that we had been breaking bread with a man who would radically alter the socio-political landscape of the country in the next dozen years, and who would be gunned down before he was 40 years old. I shudder when I remember that I almost missed that meeting!

We tend to forget the extent to which Dr. King was interested and involved in those related issues that were the spawn of racism. Racism is not singular. It reaches its ugly tentacles into so many related areas. Dr. King understood this.

In December 1955 Dr. King accepted leadership of the Montgomery Improvement Association and led a bus boycott that stunned the city and made headlines across the nation. But he did not stop there. He saw the larger picture. He went on to lead the fight to integrate lunch counters in Birmingham, the waiting rooms in bus and train stations and doctor's offices. There were "sit-ins" in churches.Segregated public school, colleges and universities were integrated. Racism was everywhere. He pushed the movement from social integration to economic justice. Dr. King addressed unemployment and underemployment of black people. He was concerned that black people were economically marginalized. He wanted black people to have a chance for advancement based on character and competence, not color.

When Dr. King was killed, he was in Memphis, Tennessee, supporting a strike by one of the poorest and most humble classes of the working poor - garbage collectors.

His legacy belongs to all of us of every race and class. We are all the richer that he lived. He grows taller and his light shines brighter each year. We will be remembering the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. long after the names of his enemies have disappeared into the dustbin of history to be remembered no more.