Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a Missionary

I have my students read “Letter from Birmingham Jail” every semester. Once, a student compared it to Joseph Smith’s letter from Liberty Jail–rather compellingly. I see in Dr. King’s statement, quoted below, a transcendent invitation to anyone who takes Christ’s name upon them–or anyone who believes in causes greater than themselves.

The LDS Church will have at least two official representatives at Pres. Elect Obama’s inauguration: Elders Uchtdorf and Ballard. I will be watching the inauguration at Calvary Baptist Church, after a multi-denominational prayer service. Pastor France Davis, who leads Calvary Baptist–and who participated in Freedom marches as a younger man–will be in Washington DC, watching a good portion of Dr. King’s dream be fulfilled in the person of Barack Obama. I was thrilled to learn this morning that a 28′ monument to Dr. King will be built between the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials.

This declaration and invitation from Dr. King’s letter continues to be relevant, and will be for generations:

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”


  1. Amen.
    This day has had special significance for me since 1969, when I asked people to sign petitions for it to be a National holiday. The back-to-back King Day and Obama inauguration make this a particularly poignant week for me.

  2. A beautiful post, Margaret. Thank you for reminding me of “the dream” that Dr. King had for America. I also look forward to a patrial fulfillment of that dream when President-Elect Barack Obama becomes President. Although I did not vote for him, he has my support and my prayers. How poignant it is that he should take the oath of office one day after MLK Day.

  3. Is it kosher to say that I voted for Barack Obama because I thought he would make the better president (“the content of his character”), and that I didn’t vote for him because he was a black man? It still takes me by surprise, and has a dozen times in the news coverage today, that everybody is talking about “the first black president.” It seems counterproductive and more than a little creepy to have such a fuss made about his color when it was the number of voters who didn’t care about/didn’t notice his color that elected him.

    Dr. King’s dream won’t be achieved until posts like this don’t even occur to bloggers.

  4. Martin Luther King Jr. was truly a prophet of God. I am constantly inspired by his words addressing the three great threats he saw in racism, poverty, and violence.

  5. Ponty Ficator says:

    I was at BYU in the late ’80s when administrators refused to recognize MLK Day. What a difference a couple of decades makes!

  6. Thanks, Margaret. Even as Dr. King’s stature in our nation’s cultural history grows ever larger as the years pass, his words remain timeless.

  7. Observer, as Joe Biden said, “Are you serious? Is that a serious question?” The assumption that ANY of us voted for Obama because of his race is rather silly, isn’t it?

  8. Re MLK day. I thought the Church itself was among the earlier employers to give its employees the day off for MLK’s birthday/”civil rights day”. I may be wrong, someone else probably knows the chronology better.

  9. blackexmo says:

    Nope–Utah was the last state in the Unionto recognize MLK Day as a holiday–in 2000, 14 years late–, and even then only calling it Human Rights Day. BYU also called it Human Rights Day for many years, and refused to honor Dr. King by lending his name and legacy to the holiday. I was a student in the 1980s and remember this well.

  10. Thanks for this, Margaret.

    Today, as prior MLK days, I’ve re-listened to the “I Have A Dream” speech. Today it occurred to me that perhaps part of the Church’s original resistance to him and his message was simply the reaction to such a clearly prophetic voice coming from outside our authority structure, and calling into question some of our own practices.

    Easy to see with hindsight.

    I wonder which prophets of today I don’t see because of the way I view the world.

  11. Antonio Parr says:

    I just watched the deeply moving “We Are One” concert on HBO.com — http://www.hbo.com/weareone/webcast/index.html
    and was deeply moved by the power of racial harmony and unity.

    I must confess to being surprised, embarrassed and more than a bit ashamed to think that my beloved Church was not only not at the forefront of efforts to foster racial unity, but actually lagged far behind other Christian churches of its time. (Some of the statements by leaders we sustained as apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ are particularly difficult/painful to process.)

    I thank God for the Church’s current unwavering commitment to the equality and brotherhood of all races, and pray that this will always be so.

  12. For FHE we too listened to Dr. MLK’s speech, “I have a dream.” When I think about what is going to happen tomorrow with the inauguration of Obama our first black president I am moved with great hope for this country and what we are capable of overcoming. I am so excited I could sing. Observer (#3), if you don’t see what the big deal about this is, you’ve missed some history lessons. I hope bloggers never forget this day.

  13. FWIW: Elder Alexander Morrison quoted Dr. King at the dedication of the Jane James monument in 2000. That marked the first time I had heard a general authority quote MLK in a semi-official setting.

    Three members of my family and I participated in BYU’s Walk of Life tonight. I always find it hard to hold back tears as we do that, because I know the stories of several Black converts who came to BYU pre-1978 and did not find it welcoming. Now, we walked to music of Gladys Knight and the Saints Unified Voices, honoring the words of Dr. King (several quotes were held up for us to read as we walked). We passed the Administration Building, named for a man who owned several slaves–Abraham Smoot. It was in that building, back in 1965, that one of my dearest friends was told that parents had complained that he (an African American) was talking to their daughters. He was asked to cease interacting with the white girls.

    After the walk, we listened to a wonderful talk by Peter Johnson, of the Marriot School of business. I had known very little of his life, but I was inspired by it–and challenged, because he gave statistics of poverty levels among “black” areas as compared with “white” areas. There is so much work to do.

    Stirling Adams gave a wonderful toast to Pres. Elect Obama at the inaugural ball which Bruce and I just returned from. Stirling listed several hopes for our next president–all of which I share.

    This has been quite a day. I can hardly wait for tomorrow. I seriously am concerned that I’ll have trouble sleeping. I have had to restrain myself all day from repeating ad nauseam to my children, “Remember this. Take notes so you can tell your own children about everything you’re witnessing.”

  14. john willis says:

    I’m sure many of you had the lesson in Sunday School yesterday on the first vision of Jospeh Smith.

    It is a very interesting exercise to compare and contrast Joseph Smith’s experience in the grove with Martin Luther King’s experience in 1955 during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He had received death threats not just on his own life but on his wife and children. Disturbed and uneasy he went into his kitchen to get a cup of coffee at midnight. He felt the need to pray and confess his sense of weakness and inadequacy. He heard the voice of Jesus telling him to stand up for truth and justice and that he would never leave him alone. He felt encouraged and was able to continue his work with the Bus Boycott.
    I have a testimony that God spoke to Joseph Smith in the grove in 1820 and to Martin Luther King in Montgomery in 1955.

    Read Rough Stone Rolling chapter 3 on the first visions and either David Garrow’s Bearing the Cross or Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters for accounts of Joseph Smith’s first vision and Martin Luther King’s coffee cup prayer.As I used to say when I was a college teacher and gave essay exams, compare and contrast.

  15. Rameumptom says:

    Thanks, Margaret. Having lived in Montgomery for 16+ years, and attending college across the street corner from where Rosa Parks climbed onto that infamous bus (her museum is on that corner today), I have a great admiration for Dr King.

    #3 asked if it is kosher to say he voted for Obama’s character, and not the color of his skin. I’d definitely say, “yes”, because that was Dr King’s hope: that we would one day view a person for their character, not because they were white/black/etc. Today, we see this dream come true, as Barak Obama gets sworn in as president on the steps of Congress, opposite the Lincoln Memorial where Dr King gave his “I have a Dream” speech.

    I hope that his presidency is successful in bringing our American people together in purpose, and that this is only the beginning of a line of quality presidents from all/any race/gender.

  16. I’ve long held the belief that Dr. King was in many respects our Samuel the Lamanite–we may yet need to be reminded, as did the Nephite disciples, to include him in our list of men inspired by God to shape the destiny of the United States.

  17. “Nope–Utah was the last state in the Union to recognize MLK Day as a holiday–in 2000, 14 years late–, and even then only calling it Human Rights Day.”

    Wikipedia tells a slightly different story.

  18. Alan Clarke says:

    If Martin Luther was given a gun as was Jospeph Smith during his incarceration, his chances for survival might have been greater. Did Smith manage to kill any of his assailants when he was being “led like a lamb to the slaughter”?

  19. Alan Clarke–this is not the place for you. There are better blogs for your particular conversations. Please visit them. I’m afraid your comment is entirely irrelevant to this conversation, so there is no need to respond to it.

  20. If anyone is Atlanta after August of this year, I highly recommend you visit the Ebenezer Baptist Church were Dr. King and his father preached. Amazing place…sitting there and listen to his sermons was a very spiritually moving experience for me.

  21. Paul Swenson says:

    I sent a new comment about an hour ago. Was it lost, or will it eventually appear?

    Paul S.

  22. Paul S.-

    They deleted mine too.

  23. Paul Swenson says:

    Is the third time the charm? I’m trying this once more.


    Your student’s comparison of Joseph Smith’s Liberty Jail letters to Martin Luther King’s letter from the Birmingham Jail has also struck me forcefully. I made the analogy in my poem “Cellmates,” which also aludes to several other similarities in the lives and deaths of MLK
    and JS. On the premise that it contributes something to the discussion that follows your post and because it may have meaning to you, Margaret, I’m posting it here.


    Called to hold the keys
    of mysteries. Yet both,
    at 34, were locked away;
    Joseph jailed at Liberty,
    dropped through a hole

    in prison floor into the pit.
    In Birmingham, Martin
    declared: Where there
    is injustice, I am there,
    and it would not be fair

    of me to spurn the call
    for aid to preach abroad
    the Freedom Gospel.
    Just as Paul was not
    afraid to leave the town

    of Tarsus, and in cells
    throughout the Roman
    Empire, tell of Christ.
    Jailers for these eccentric
    visionaries were curious:

    Guards made mock
    of Joseph—withdrew
    in shock and fear
    when he rebuked
    them. Martin’s keepers,

    peering through the bars,
    were moved—by prayers,
    songs, words of praise
    raised by men in chains.
    History’s remains?

    The letters. From Liberty,
    name framed in irony,
    Joseph wrote, Circumstance
    calculated to awaken
    our spirits to sacred

    remembrance. Nothing
    can separate us from love
    of God and fellowship, one
    with another. Every cruelty
    practiced on us [or on a brother]

    will only bind our hearts together.
    From Alabama, Martin penned,
    We are caught in…mutuality…
    tied by…a garment of destiny.
    To purge their peoples, mobbers

    and assassins came. When you
    see them lynch your mothers,
    drown your sisters, brothers…
    hate-filled policemen…you may understand it’s hard for us

    to wait, read Martin’s missive.
    At 39, they both were dead.
    Joseph gone to Carthage,
    calm as summer’s morning,
    Martin to the mountaintop,

    then to Memphis for the kill.
    I want to do God’s will, he said.
    I don’t fear any man.
    I’ve seen the glory of the Lord.
    And, so had Joseph.

  24. Paul, what a gift that poem is! Thank you. I love you style, love the internal rhyme and the forceful images. Thank you so much for posting it!

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