The following is taken from the text of the Crown Forum Lecture on Martin Luther King Jr delivered at Dr. King’s alma mater, Morehouse College on January 12, 2012.
For an American, there are few honors equal to the opportunity to reflect on the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr in the city where he was born, at the institution where so much of his moral, intellectual and leadership formation took place. I owe my citizenship to King, to everyone whose response to being cut out of the American project was to call this nation not a lie but a broken promise, and then to use their bodies and their blood to mend it.
The man whom we speak of today wasn’t the president of this institution, or a full-time faculty member, or a member of the chapel staff. He was a student, fifteen years old when he set foot on this campus.
King experimented with his identity during his Morehouse years. He arrived thinking he might be a doctor but soon decided the sciences weren’t for him. For a while, he turned his attention to the law.
It’s surprising to think of King having questions about his vocation. It’s so easy to listen to the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and imagine King emerging from the womb a fully formed preacher, a baby delivered directly into the pulpit.
But King went through a set of serious changes while he was here at Morehouse, as all students go through serious changes. For King, these changes impacted even that most precious part of his identity: faith.
King had a strong religious upbringing. His father was a preacher, and his grandfather was a preacher, and he grew up barely a block from his church. But by his second year at Morehouse, King spoke of not wanting to attend religious services. When he finally embraced the vocation of his lineage, saying that being a Baptist preacher was ‘my being and heritage’, Daddy King rejoiced, telling the congregation at Ebenezer that his son ‘had been called by God to the pulpit’. But even as young Martin preached his first sermons, it was clear his style and outlook were somewhat different than his father’s. He was having what a Morehouse education promises: he was embracing his roots, and he was growing wings.
“For the first time in my life, I realized that nobody there was afraid,” King said of Morehouse. I imagine this has something to do with going to a college where everyone shared a skin color, but King grew up in a community where that was the case. My guess is there was something more at play. I think the content of the intellectual and moral character of Morehouse played as much of a role as the color of his fellow student’s skin. I think King found here an environment where he could dream the world anew, and where he could acquire the skills and knowledge to build that new world. “There are moral laws of the universe that man can no more violate with impunity than he can violate its physical laws,” King said in his Senior Sermon, an address that startled his fellow students with its passion and clarity.
If I were to boil down the heart of that moral law King spoke of, I would use three words: seek right relationship. When King spoke so many years later in his final sermon of looking over the mountain top and seeing the promised land, I believe he saw a community of people from different backgrounds following the moral law of being in right relationship. For this, he used the image of the World House: “This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together - black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu-a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”
Most of what we speak of when we speak of King is the work he did to build right relationship across what one of his intellectual mentors W.E.B. DuBois referred to as ‘the color line’. It was as DuBois said, the problem of the twentieth century, a problem that persists into the twenty-first. But as his World House image suggests, it was not the only problem that King focused on. King sought right relationships between blacks and whites, but also Gentiles and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, Muslims and Hindus. King was as interested in the faith line as he was the color line. And if you read the newspapers today, you will see that the faith line is causing tension and bloodshed from Baghdad to Boston.
When you go to the King National Memorial site here in Atlanta, it is a statue of Gandhi that greets you at the door. King spoke of learning the method of nonviolence from Gandhi, but drawing his inspiration, as a Christian, from the example of Jesus. King was fully aware that Gandhi’s main inspiration came from elsewhere. As a Hindu, Gandhi looked primarily to the Bhagavad Gita, not the Bible.
King did not reject Gandhi because of their difference in belief. In fact, King went to India in 1959 to study the interfaith movement that Gandhi had shaped there. Right relationship with Gandhi meant to learn from him.
In 1963, a rabbi who escaped the trains from Warsaw to Auschwitz by six weeks presented himself to King. Abraham Joshua Heschel said that the soul of Judaism was at stake in the civil rights movement, and that he wanted to do everything he could to advance the cause. Right relationship with Rabbi Heschel meant to march with him in Selma.
Later in the 1960s, King began to receive correspondence from a Vietnamese Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh. He told King that his people regarded him as a Bodhisattva, a Buddha figure who had attained enlightenment and had chosen to stay on Earth to teach others compassion. Why does that compassion not include the people of Vietnam suffering from America’s war in Southeast Asia? Right relationship with the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh meant to change his position on the Vietnam War.
It rolls easily off the tongue to say that you are a student or alum of this college, a Morehouse man. But I know those words occupy a special place in your minds. The honor of being a part of this community comes with significant responsibilities. There are too many people out there who believe that faith ought to be a barrier of division or a bomb of destruction. We need you to make it a bridge of cooperation. There are too many people who believe the various races and faiths ought to be sectioned off in prisons of isolation. We need you to be architects of the next world house. Across the generations, when history has called, Morehouse men have answered. And so must you. As T.S. Eliot suggested, We do not inherit traditions. We work to make ourselves worthy of them.
In Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, the room where King spent his final night on earth, the room outside of which he was assassinated, there is a plaque with a line from Genesis: “Behold, here cometh the dreamer, let us slay him and see what becomes of his dream.” You are what has become of King’s dream. And that is a beautiful thing. King’s legacy is not so much in changed laws but in empowered, committed lives. Continue that legacy, Morehouse men. For him, for this college, for each other, for all of us.
Eboo Patel is founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core.