The Last Week of Jesus Christ & the Last Year of Martin Luther King
This bible study series was originally published in the Poverty Initiative’s A New and Unsettling Force: Reigniting Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign. It was written by Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis in consultation with Onleilove Alston, Willie Baptist, Rev. Jessica Chadwick Williams, Charon Hribar, Derrick McQueen, Ben Sanders, Charlene Sinclair, Joe Strife, Colleen Wessel-McCoy and John Wessel-McCoy. The series of five studies is available together for download or by chapter below. Disponible en español.
I know a man… He was born in an obscure village, the child of a poor peasant woman. And then he grew up in still another obscure village, where he worked as a carpenter until he was thirty years old. … He didn’t have much. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. He never owned a house. He never went to college. He never visited a big city. He never went two hundred miles from where he was born. He did none of the usual things that the world would associate with greatness. He had no credentials but himself.
He was only thirty-three when the tide of public opinion turned against him. They called him a rabble-rouser. They called him a troublemaker. They said he was an agitator. He practiced civil disobedience; he broke injunctions. And so he was turned over to his enemies and went through the mockery of a trial.
These are the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from his “Drum Major Instinct” speech given just a few months before his assassination. We all know Martin Luther King as the civil rights leader who led the March on Washington and helped pass the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. But fewer of us are familiar with the King who committed his last years to the eradication of poverty. Martin Luther King spent the last year of his life making connections between racism, militarism and poverty. His last crusade was the Poor People’s Campaign—he often wondered what good is it to be able to sit at a lunch counter if you couldn’t afford to buy a hamburger? King also took note of the poverty in Northern cities brought to light particularly in the 1965 Watts Rebellion and the poverty in Appalachia portrayed through images in Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in 1965 and 1966. He wanted to do something about this widespread poverty. The Poor People’s Campaign was an effort to unite poor people across racial and geographic lines to make a real war on poverty, with poor people at the lead, so things like the Vietnam War could not turn the War on Poverty into a skirmish and resources could not be diverted away from those who really needed them. Central to King’s vision of a Poor People’s Campaign was massive civil disobedience in hospitals, welfare centers and governmental and corporate buildings until the needs of the poor were met.
When brought to Marks, Mississippi in the Mississippi Delta, in the poorest county in the United States, for a colleague’s funeral in 1968, King toured around the town. He dropped to his knees and cried because of the deep-seated poverty he witnessed. He called a town hall meeting at Eudora AME Zion Church, and from there he determined to start the Mule Train to Washington, the central caravan of poor people that met up with other caravans from all over the country at Resurrection City, a major tent city on the National Mall in Washington D.C.
This last year of King’s life, particularly his focus on building the Poor People’s Campaign, actually parallels the last week (and the greater mission) of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. In this bible study, we will explore the connection of the last year of King and the last week of Jesus Christ. We will, perhaps, find implications for our anti-poverty ministries today. We at the Poverty Initiative invite you to join us in “Re-Igniting the Poor People’s Campaign: Finishing the Unfinished Business of Martin Luther King, Jr.” We believe King’s business is the business of Jesus Christ and that we are all called to take up this work.
This bible study was developed during the Poverty Initiative Immersion Trip to the Mississippi Delta commemorating the 40th Anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign. We ask you to be open to bringing your experiences into the discussion as well. The bible study contains five sessions, each containing bible stories, passages from Martin Luther King and other supporting materials that should help us draw connections between the words and actions of Jesus and King, as well as inform our own commitment to end poverty with poor people in the lead.
The United Methodist Church’s “Ministry With the Poor” website featured the Poverty Initiative’s The Last Week of Jesus Christ and the Last Year of Martin Luther King Bible Studies as a 2012 Holy Week series.