By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson
As we commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. over the past week, I have pondered his life and witness, and the word “courage” comes to mind.
Dr. King had incredible courage to lead the Civil Rights movement that ultimately brought much good and justice to the United States and the world. His and his family’s lives were constantly in danger from death threats because of his justice work.
The majority of white Americans in power did not want to see equality in this country, and the pushback was swift and severe. However, I believe that one of the most difficult places to have courage is in the presence of one’s own peers.
When Dr. King was invited and came to Birmingham for a campaign he landed in jail for a time. There he penned his famous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” This profound and poignant letter was addressed to clergy who had criticized the timing of the nonviolent protest plans he had for the city.
King writes to them, “Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was ‘well-timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed, is justice denied.’ We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights.”
Criticism that comes from one’s fellow peers can be even more painful than the critiques of one’s usual dissenters. To do what is right anyway can mean that one often stands alone, or sits in jail, or ultimately loses one’s life.
King has taught the world that to do what is right is to not delay action in the face of injustice and oppression. It means going against the advice of well-meaning colleagues at times and being willing to go it alone.
It is so very tempting to put off or ignore the call to speak truth to power or to allow pushback to silence our voices. The stakes are high. Suffering is assured. What would the world look like today if King had backed down?
During this month, and especially during these times, I give thanks for all people of courage who do not wait but are willing to go forward and do what’s right, even without the support of their peers.
Where in your life can you show this kind of courage?