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Harrington: At MLK’s midnight kitchen table

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James C. Harrington

James C. Harrington

One of the more important — and often overlooked — moments of the civil rights movement was Martin Luther King’s midnight “kitchen table experience” in 1956, which shaped his (and our) future.

King was 27 years old and in his second year as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, within eyesight of the Alabama Capitol. He had been helping lead the city bus boycott, which brought an ongoing barrage of death threats at his house, mail and phone. Some days, there were as many as 30 to 40 calls, often in the evening, trying to force him to return back to Atlanta.

King would just lay down the phone and, if at night, go back to bed. But one call, around midnight on Jan. 27, became pivotal for him.

While his wife, Coretta, and their infant daughter slept nearby, the caller, a man, said, “N-----, we’re tired of your mess. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow up your house and blow your brains out.”

Shaken more than usual, King, as later recounted, went to their small kitchen, made a pot of coffee, buried his face in his hands, and prayed aloud: “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right … But I am afraid … I must confess … I’m losing my courage.”

King, in his own words, said, “I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for truth. Stand up for justice. Stand up for righteousness. I will be at your side.’ ”

His fear quieted at that moment and left him, though never the threats. A bomb blew up on the front steps of his modest home three evenings later. Fortunately, despite the wreckage, no one was injured.

From the damaged porch, King called his gathered supporters out of their anger, and into nonviolence and love for their enemies.

Dr. King lived without fear for another 12 years, always going forward, knowing his life was at risk … “if I am stopped, this movement will not stop.” The world is better for his living without fear.

What we can take from King’s “kitchen table experience” is the importance of spiritual grounding to move onward in the hard, sometimes perilous struggle for justice, allowing no fear to detour our journey forward.

King learned his anchoring from Howard Thurman and the Rev. James Larson, forerunners of Black Liberation Theology, and Mohandas Gandhi’s nonviolence. He was carried along by “the Negro spirituals.”

Spiritual grounding is essential. Our human history teaches us that. This is not about religiosity, going to church, and so on, but that deep personal spiritual anchoring, whatever one’s faith tradition (or none).

If we lack this tethering, our striving for justice will be short-lived and yanked away by distraction or fear of societal disapproval, retaliation, physical danger, financial insecurity and so on (the list is long).

Community grows because we give back; it does not grow in a vacuum.

Our annual commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. should honor not only him, but, as he often pointed out, all those who struggled in danger to themselves without fear. We should reflect on how their deep spirituality moved them (and us) closer to the dream. Consider Harriet Tubman, Fanny Lou Hamer, John Lewis — and all those unnamed individuals before us, many of whom faced repercussions or death. We should honor, and imitate, their spiritual grounding and fearless courage.

Black Lives Matter has raised up a challenge and put it directly in our face. Likewise, the pandemic, now two years in the making, has laid bare the extravagant economic dislocations that oppress people of color and poor people.

Many want to rise to the challenge. Others will drift in their solipsism. People who want to be among those working for justice should consider more deeply grounding themselves so as to be fearlessly true to the struggle and not windvanes.

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— James C. Harrington, a human rights attorney in Austin, is founder and director emeritus of the Texas Civil Rights Project.

Today's Bible verse

“Consider it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.”

James 1:2-3

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