Behind a mighty civil rights icon, a public and private prayer life

January 12, 2011

(RNS) The late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has long been hailed as a
civil rights leader, but religious studies professor Lewis Baldwin said
one aspect of his life has often been overlooked: the role of prayer.


"In order to understand him, you must begin, I think, with this idea
of King as a spiritual leader," said Baldwin, author of the recent book,
"Never to Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King Jr."


"Dr. King always made it clear that his civil rights and political
activities were an extension of his ministry."


As the nation marks the 25th anniversary of Monday's (Jan. 17)
federal holiday honoring King, the scholar who has spent a quarter
century chronicling King's cultural influences has focused on King's
prayer life.


For King, personal prayer and public prayer were equally
significant, the scholar said.


"Dr. King's personal devotional life was very, very important in
giving him the courage and the determination to fight for justice," said
Baldwin, who teaches at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.


King would take "personal prayer retreats" and shut himself in a
hotel room or pastor's study to pray, meditate and plan his next sermon
or civil rights activities.


"But public prayer was important to him also because he understood
prayer in that context as a form of creative energy," Baldwin said. "It
was a way of motivating, affirming, reaffirming, empowering people in
the context of the struggle for equal rights."


He writes that "prayer was King's secret weapon in the civil rights
movement," a key to its success as people found the strength to continue
despite arrests and killings.


King's prayers included a sense of perspective on the man and the
movement he led. In a 1957 sermon at his Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in
Montgomery, Ala., he said one of his daily prayers was, "Help me, O God,
to see that I'm just a symbol of a movement."


Others were personal as well as corporate: "As we look within
ourselves we are confronted with the appalling fact that the history of
our lives is the history of an eternal revolt against thee," he prayed
in a 1953 prayer broadcast from Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church.


He sounded a similar tone later that year: "We realize that we stand
surrounded with the mountains of love and we deliberately dwell in the
valley of hate," according to the 2007 volumes of "The Papers of Martin
Luther King Jr."


Prayer -- at mealtimes and before leaving for school -- was
emphasized in King's childhood home, where he grew up the son and
grandson of Baptist preachers. As a young married father, he continued
prayer traditions when he was home with his own family.


King had what was perhaps the most transforming prayer experience in
1956, after a midnight call from a racist who threatened to kill him and
destroy his home.


"He retreated to his kitchen and over a cup of coffee poured his
heart out to God," Baldwin said.


King later preached a sermon about the experience, saying he had a
vision of God telling him to "stand up" for righteousness and assuring
him that he would always have God's companionship.


"He felt from that point on that he was never really alone," said
Baldwin, who named his book after King's experience.


Baldwin, who heard King speak as a high school junior in Camden,
Ala., said King's praying and preaching were intertwined.


"You can't talk about his preaching without talking about his prayer
life because he engaged in prayer from the point of the preparation of
the sermon," he said.


Often his prayers were brief, only one or two sentences in length.


"He had difficulty at times with those in the black churches who
prayed on and on for minutes and minutes and minutes, repeating
themselves," said Baldwin, 61. "He felt that prayer at that point
becomes just an exercise in words and perhaps even meaninglessness."


King's prayers, influenced by the legacies of St. Francis of Assisi
and nonviolence advocate Mahatma Gandhi, became a pioneering aspect of
interracial and interfaith dialogue, Baldwin said.


"Dr. King was able to intersect into the civil rights movement
Christians, Muslims, Jews, Protestants, Catholics and they all ... sang
together and prayed together," Baldwin said.


More than four decades after King's assassination, Baldwin said
King's focus on prayer has much to teach other social movements.


"Dr. King taught us about the importance of prayer, not only as a
part of our own personal devotional life but ... also prayer must be a
part of any movement for social action," he said.