Session 3: Telling Stories, Making Commitments

From “The Last Week of Jesus Christ and the Last Year of Martin Luther King” Bible Study Series


Bible passage: Matthew 26:36-46
King passage: excerpts from “Drum Major Instinct”
Other references: excerpts from David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1987)

Discussion Questions

1. What do you think about Garrow’s story about King and the start of the Montgomery Bus Boycott?
2. How does King’s attitude change from before he firsts gets involved in the Montgomery Bus Boycott until the time that he writes his “Drum Major Instinct” speech?
3. Do you see a parallel between Martin Luther King and Jesus in these passages?
4. Do you feel a connection to King or Jesus in these stories? What role do you have to play in this work to end poverty and racism?

Matthew 26:36-46 (NIV)

Jesus Prays in Gethsemane
36 Then Jesus went with them to the olive grove called Gethsemane, and he said, “Sit here while I go over there to pray.” 37 He took Peter and Zebedee’s two sons, James and John, and he became anguished and distressed. 38 He told them, “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
39 He went on a little farther and bowed with his face to the ground, praying, “My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.”
40 Then he returned to the disciples and found them asleep. He said to Peter, “Couldn’t you watch with me even one hour? 41 Keep watch and pray, so that you will not give in to temptation. For the spirit is willing, but the body is weak!”
42 Then Jesus left them a second time and prayed, “My Father! If this cup cannot be taken away unless I drink it, your will be done.” 43 When he returned to them again, he found them sleeping, for they couldn’t keep their eyes open.
44 So he went to pray a third time, saying the same things again. 45 Then he came to the disciples and said, “Go ahead and sleep. Have your rest. But look—the time has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Up, let’s be going. Look, my betrayer is here!”

From Martin Luther King, Jr., “Drum Major Instinct”

“And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, (Everybody) because everybody can serve. (Amen) You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. (All right) You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. (Amen) You only need a heart full of grace, (Yes, sir, Amen) a soul generated by love. (Yes) And you can be that servant.

I know a man—and I just want to talk about him a minute, and maybe you will discover who I’m talking about as I go down the way (Yeah) because he was a great one. And he just went about serving. He was born in an obscure village, (Yes, sir) 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. (Amen) Then for three years, he just got on his feet, and he was an itinerant preacher. And he went about doing some things. He didn’t have much. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. (Yes) 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. (Glory to God) He practiced civil disobedience; he broke injunctions. And so he was turned over to his enemies and went through the mockery of a trial. And the irony of it all is that his friends turned him over to them. (Amen) One of his closest friends denied him. Another of his friends turned him over to his enemies. And while he was dying, the people who killed him gambled for his clothing, the only possession that he had in the world. (Lord help him) When he was dead he was buried in a borrowed tomb, through the pity of a friend.

Nineteen centuries have come and gone and today he stands as the most influential figure that ever entered human history. All of the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned put together (Yes) have not affected the life of man on this earth (Amen) as much as that one solitary life. His name may be a familiar one. (Jesus) But today I can hear them talking about him. Every now and then somebody says, ‘He’s King of Kings.’ (Yes) And again I can hear somebody saying, ‘He’s Lord of Lords.’ Somewhere else I can hear somebody saying, ‘In Christ there is no East nor West.’ (Yes) And then they go on and talk about, ‘In Him there’s no North and South, but one great Fellowship of Love throughout the whole wide world.’ He didn’t have anything. (Amen) He just went around serving and doing good.

This morning, you can be on his right hand and his left hand if you serve. (Amen) It’s the only way in.

Every now and then I guess we all think realistically (Yes, sir) about that day when we will be victimized with what is life’s final common denominator—that something that we call death. We all think about it. And every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral. And I don’t think of it in a morbid sense. And every now and then I ask myself, ‘What is it that I would want said?’ And I leave the word to you this morning.

If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. (Yes) And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school. (Yes)

I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. (Yes)
I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.
I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. (Amen)
I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. (Yes)
And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. (Yes)
I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. (Lord)
I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. (Yes)

Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. (Amen) Say that I was a drum major for peace. (Yes) I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. (Yes) I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. (Amen) And that’s all I want to say.

From David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross (1987), pages 17-18

The long-discussed boycott was about to get under way. After a fitful night, E.D. Nixon arose early Friday morning to begin assembling the black leadership. Nixon knew that a mass boycott of Montgomery’s buses could not be accomplished simply by the WPC and a few regular activists such as himself. Although the women had been the driving force behind all of the black community efforts of the last few years, a mass protest would succeed only if they could obtain the enthusiastic support of Montgomery’s black ministers. With that in mind, Nixon made his first call to one of the youngest and most outspoken of the city’s pastors, Ralph D. Abernathy.

Abernathy, the secretary of the Baptist Ministers’ Alliance, told Nixon he would support the effort. Nixon queried Abernathy about when and where the black leadership should meet, and they agreed that a meeting that evening at a central, downtown location would be good. Abernathy recommended that they call the meeting in the name of the Baptist Ministers’ Alliance, and that Nixon call the elderly president of the group, the Reverend H. H. Hubbard, to secure his blessing. Abernathy also advised Nixon to phone one of Abernathy’s best friends, the Reverend M. L. King, Jr., pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and ask if the meeting could be held there. In the meantime, Abernathy would begin contacting other ministers.

Nixon quickly secured Hubbard’s approval. He then called King. Nixon related the events of the previous evening, told King of the emerging consensus to begin a boycott on Monday, and asked if the young pastor would join in supporting the effort. King hesitated. He had a new-born daughter, less than one month old, and heavy responsibilities at his church. Only a few weeks earlier, he had declined to be considered for president of the local NAACP chapter because of these other demands on his time. He wasn’t sure he could handle any additional responsibilities. ‘Brother Nixon,’ he said, ‘let me think about it awhile, and call me back.’ Nixon told King that he and Abernathy already were telling people to meet at King’s church that evening, ‘That’s all right,’ King replied, ‘I just want to think about it and then you call me back.’ Nixon agreed.

King hadn’t had long to mull over Nixon’s request before Abernathy called. Abernathy had heard from Nixon about his friend’s hesitation, and wanted to stress to King the opportunity that the Parks arrest represented. King acknowledged that Abernathy was correct; he had no quarrel with the boycott plan. So long as he did not have to do the organizational work, he would be happy to support the effort and host the evening meeting at Dexter church. Satisfied, Abernathy turned his efforts to contacting additional ministers. …When the MIA’s presidency unexpectedly was thrust upon him on December 5, King was uncertain of his ability to lead a community he had resided in so briefly, but he was able to draw upon the same strong convictions that had inspired his leadership at Dexter. The pressures upon him had grown as the boycott continued, and by the time the protest entered its third week, the white community focused upon King as the effort’s principal spokesman.… That night, for the first time in his life, King felt such an experience as he sought to escape the pressures the MIA presidency had placed upon him. He thought more about how trouble-free his life had been until the movement began.

‘Everything was done [for me], and if I had a problem I could always call Daddy—my earthly father. Things were solved. But one day after finishing school, I was called to a little church, down in Montgomery, Alabama. And I started preaching there. Things were going well in that church, it was a marvelous experience. But one day a year later, a lady by the name of Rosa Parks decided that she wasn’t going to take it any longer. … It was the beginning of a movement…and the people of Montgomery asked me to serve them as a spokesman, and as the president of the new organization…that came into being to lead the boycott. I couldn’t say no. And then we started our struggle together. Things were going well for the first few days but then, about ten or fifteen days later, after the white people in Montgomery knew that we meant business, they started doing some nasty things. They started making nasty telephone calls, and it came to the point that some days more than forty telephone calls would come in, threatening my life, the life of my family, the life of my child, I took it for a while, in a strong manner.’

But that night, unable to be at peace with himself, King feared he could take it no longer. It was the most important night of his life, the one he always would think back to in future years when the pressures again seemed to be too great. ‘It was around midnight,’ he said, thinking back on it. ‘You can have some strange experiences at midnight.’ The threatening caller had rattled him deeply, ‘Nigger, we are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out, and blow up your house.’

‘I sat there and thought about a beautiful little daughter who had just been born. She was the darling of my life. I’d come in night after night and see that little gentle smile. And I sat at that table thinking about that little girl and thinking about the fact that she could be taken away from me any minute. And I started thinking about a dedicated, devoted and loyal wife, who was over there asleep. And she could be taken from me, or I could be taken from her. And I got to the point that I couldn’t take it any longer. I was weak. Something said to me, you can’t call on Daddy now. He’s up in Atlanta a hundred and seventy-five miles away. You can’t even call on Mama now. You’ve got to call on that something in that person that your Daddy used to tell you about, that power that can make a way out of no way.’

‘And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me, and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed down over that cup of coffee. I never will forget it. …I prayed a prayer, and I prayed out loud that night, I said, ‘Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now, I’m faltering, I’m losing my courage, And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.’

Then it happened: ‘And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’ … I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.’

That experience gave King a new strength and courage, ‘Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared.’ He went back to bed no longer worried about the threats of bombings. The next morning he went down to the Montgomery courthouse and was convicted of the Thursday speeding charge. He was fined $10, plus $4 in court costs, Fred Gray filed notice of appeal.”

Session 4