Receiving the Call
Beset by doubt about his path, young Martin Luther King, Jr. heard Jesus' voice.
BY: Charles Marsh
But whatever momentary relief King felt was gone the next evening when he returned to his parsonage, exhausted after another long day of organizational meetings. Coretta and their two-month-old daughter, Yolanda, were already asleep, and King was eager to join them. He would not be so lucky. The phone rang out in the midnight silence, and when King lifted the receiver, a drawl released a torrent of obscene words and then the death threat: "Listen, nigger, we've taken all we want from you; before next week you'll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery."
King hung up without comment, as had become his custom. Threatening phone calls had become a daily routine in the weeks of the protests, and King had tried to brush them off at first. In recent days, however, the threatening phone calls had started to take a toll, increasing in number to thirty or forty a day and growing in their menacing intent.
Unwelcome thoughts prey on the mind in the late hours, and King was overcome with fear. "I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. I had heard these things before, but for some reason that night it got to me.
Stirred into wakefulness, King made a pot of coffee and sat down at the kitchen table. "I felt myself faltering," he said. It was as though the violent undercurrents of the protest rushed in upon him with heightened force, and he surveyed the turbulent waters for a way of escape, searching for an exit point between courage and convenience-"a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward"-and he found none. "I was ready to give up," he said.
King thought of baby Yoki sleeping in her crib, of her "little gentle smile," and of Coretta, who had sacrificed her music career, according to the milieu of the Baptist pastor's wife, to follow her husband south. For the first time, he grasped the seriousness of his situation and with it the inescapable fact that his family could be taken away from him any minute, or more likely he from them. He felt himself reeling within, as the Psalmist had said, his soul "melted because of trouble, at wit's end." "I felt myself . . . growing in fear," said King.
Sitting at his kitchen table sipping the coffee, King's thoughts were interrupted by a sudden notion that at once intensified his desperation and clarified his options. "Something said to me, 'You can't call on Daddy now, you can't call on Mama. 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.'" With his head now buried in his hands, King bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. He said:
Lord, I'm down here trying to do what's right. I still think I'm right. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But Lord, I must confess that I'm weak now, I'm faltering. I'm losing my courage. Now, I am afraid. And I can't let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone.
As he prayed alone in the silent kitchen, King heard a voice saying, "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." Then King heard the voice of Jesus. "I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone."
And as the voice washed over the stains of the wretched caller, King reached a spiritual shore beyond fear and apprehension. "I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before," he said. "Almost at once my fears began to go," King said of the midnight flash of illumination and resolve. "My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything."