But a little-known incident in 1956 — which sparked a crisis of faith and forced King to confront his worst fears — sheds valuable light on the ways he drew on his spiritual beliefs to persist in the face of steep obstacles and his increasing certainty that he would be killed.
King’s struggle to keep fighting for racial justice not only provides a more grounded vision of the late civil rights leader, but also shows how we can learn from his experiences to continue the long and arduous push for our country to fulfill its lofty promises of equality at a precarious moment in our democracy.
But just four days after Parks’ arrest, King became the president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, an organization founded by Black ministers and community leaders that would go on to play a pivotal role in guiding the boycott, negotiating with city leaders and soliciting nationwide support.
King’s new role put him in the spotlight, and he began receiving threatening phone calls. One, in particular, unnerved him more than the others.
King went to his kitchen to try to calm himself, reflecting on the theology he had learned as a student. He meditated on his beautiful little girl and lovely wife and how they could be taken from him at any moment.
“Something said to me, you can’t call on Daddy now, he’s up in Atlanta a hundred and seventy-five miles away,” he said. “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.”
King bowed his head over a cup of coffee and asked for help from God. “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 lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.”
He went on to say that Jesus “promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.”
But he grappled with doubts throughout the rest of his life. He closed the Chicago speech by recounting the challenges he faced and how they led him to question if his life had made a difference in the world:
“And I don’t mind telling you this morning that sometimes I feel discouraged. I felt discouraged in Chicago. As I move through Mississippi and Georgia and Alabama, I feel discouraged. Living every day under the threat of death, I feel discouraged sometimes. Living every day under extensive criticisms, even from Negroes, I feel discouraged sometimes. Yes, sometimes I feel discouraged and feel my work’s in vain. But then the holy spirit revives my soul again. ‘There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.'”
Beset by a devastating pandemic, the failed insurrection at the US Capitol, the uncertain fate of our democracy, and our nation’s searing economic inequality and racial injustice, it’s far too easy to become discouraged. But whether we are religiously oriented or not, looking at King’s struggle for courage can shift our understanding of the civil rights leader and point a way forward during this dark period in our nation’s history. Rather than seeing him as a near-mythical icon, learning about King’s fears can provide us the necessary inspiration to push through our own doubts and find our own sources of strength. And, buttressed by his example, we can continue to press our nation to be fair, open and just with the same tenacity he exhibited until his assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968.