The Legacy of Rev. King and Us!

Midweek Faith Lift

January 25, 2023

The Legacy of Dr. King and Us!

Rev. Deb Hill-Davis

Daily Reflection

January 9, 2023

          “The glass blower knows, while in the heat of beginning, any shape is possible. Once hardened, the only way to change it is to break it.”

            – Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

          Affirmative prayer: Infinite Presence, I am ready to change the bugaboo in my life – that thing that is causing such distress that I’m willing to break and be broken. I give myself with complete trust to the repair and healing I seek. Today, I have the soulful resolve to take the risk, have the hard conversation, and take the courageous action, knowing that great blessings are in store for all in this story line. Thank you, God, for life made new. Amen.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born January 15, 1929, and was instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination in public accommodations, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1964.  His prayer was: “Use me, God. Show me how to take who I am, who I want to be, and what I can do, and use it for a purpose greater than myself.” ​- Martin Luther King, Jr.  Dr. King’s life was an answer to that prayer.  Let his prayer become our prayer.

This past Monday, on MLK Day,  I watched the MLK Celebration hosted by Unity Village, which my dear friend, Rev. Jackie Hawkins facilitated.  One of her astute observations was that the Civil Rights Movement led by King was a “spiritual movement” and that is why it was so successful.  It was a social justice movement but it was grounded in the spiritual principles of love and non-violence.  Here is what King said in his last address on August 16, 1967 to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference about love and justice and power:

           What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic.  Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love….It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless immorality which constitutes the major crisis of our times.

Sadly, King’s words are just as true today as they were in 1967.  Love is at the core of all that he did.  His personal practice of nonviolence was legendary.  A black Unity minister who was part of the program on Monday recounted an incident in which a white man spat in King’s face after one of his speeches.  Rev. King calmly took a cloth handkerchief from his pocket, wiped the man’s spit off his face and then handed it to the man saying, “I believe this belongs to you.”  Wow!  How incredibly powerful to have that kind of grounding in nonviolence and mindfulness to respond with such presence of mind and heart to this man, just giving back to him the hate with calm compassion.  I don’t think I could do that, could you?

One of the undergirding practices that King and the Civil Rights cadre followed before they acted was also referenced by another African American Unity minister during Monday’s program.  It is referenced in King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” which he wrote while imprisoned after a march in Birmingham.  King was describing the preparations that he and the marchers take before deciding to show up and march in any specific location.  The process includes four steps:

  1. Collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive.
  2. Negotiation
  3. Self-purification
  4. Direct action

While all four steps are critical in this process, the self-purification is of particular importance.  The process of self-purification included having workshops on nonviolence, and asking all involved, “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeals of jail?”

It is interesting to note that King described their direct action as “nonviolent witness.” Standing in that powerful space of “nonviolent witness” with all the preparation is what made these demonstrations sacred and powerful because the energy sustaining this witness is love, not hate, not anger, not retaliation, but just love.

Last Sunday at the AARLA Interfaith Service, three of us spoke sharing our reflections on King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” written in April 1963.

Each of the speakers had a particular and powerful perspective on King’s letter. Our Buddhist friend, Ven. Dr. Doug Gentile noted the energy and inevitability of our interconnectedness, the power of “ahimsa”, or nonviolence, which is a major tenet of the Buddhist tradition and the power of King’s words.  Rabbi Barbara Block, who also spoke, highlighted the connectedness of the Jewish community to Dr. King and standing up for justice. She also noted that King was committed to nonviolence before even meeting Gandhi.  Each one issued a call to action to honor Dr. King.


I share with you all again my words from that service:

“The glass blower knows, while in the heat of beginning, any shape is possible.

Once hardened, the only way to change it is to break it.”

                                                                                               – Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

 As I re-read Rev. King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” it landed heavily in my heart, breaking it open one more time and then another and then another.  What breaks my heart open is that so much of what King wrote on April 16, 1963 is still so relevant today.  The outward signs of segregation may be gone, but the inner mindset or consciousness of segregation is still very much with us, all of us.  When King wrote in that letter, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.  Lukewarm acceptance is more bewildering than outright rejection,” he was speaking to me, to all of us, especially his fellow clergy.  Friends we are called to lean in with hearts broken open and listen with more than shallow understanding. What do I mean?

Before I became a minister, I was a School Psychologist employed by Des Moines Public Schools and worked for 30 years in de-segregated schools seeing firsthand the damage done by people of good will who had a shallow understanding of the impact on generations of black students. When we bus inner city students to wealthy, white neighborhoods and don’t also provide transportation for the parents to attend parent teacher conferences, PTA Meetings, fund raisers, concerts and more, we disenfranchise inner city families from participating in the educational process for their children.  That is just one example of “unintended consequences” of policy changes that were made by people of good will with “shallow understanding.”  There are more, many more. 

What is true, oh so true, is what King also said in his letter to clergy from jail in 1963:

           Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood.  Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

This is a call to prayer, a call to our consciousness to come up higher. That is where we, as clergy are asked to land….from elegy to psalm.  And while our national policies may have shifted from racial bias and prejudice, our praxis, our practices as a nation, as a people, have not. The current efforts in the Iowa legislature to block any attempt to teach the true story of the racial history of America is evidence of that.  It also became painfully obvious in the hideous death of George Floyd and so many others.  Could that happen in Iowa?  I would like to say no, but I had many black teacher colleagues in Des Moines Schools who were stopped for “driving while black” in certain neighborhoods in the city.  Ames is not immune to this pattern, lest we lapse into “shallow understanding” in order to feel better.

Friends, let Rev. King’s legacy to us be a clarion call to wake up to our white privilege and all that it implies to embrace honest conversations with our black fellow humans. Let us lean in to the difficult conversations, which will repair our fractured relationships and truly deepen our understanding.  Let us break our hearts open and let all the heated rhetoric of our time become the energy that melts the glass to re-shape it into a new and beautiful expression that we can only begin to imagine.  Let us write a new psalm of human connection, heart to heart, hand to hand with deep listening and great courage as we repair all that is broken, all that is hurting and all that is calling for our attention in these challenging times. 


With closing words from Rev. King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”:

Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all of their scintillating beauty.


Blessings on the path,
Rev. Deb