When I first met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in fall of 1957, I was immediately struck by the deep stillness he projected. I will never forget his posture as he entered the room, slowly, majestically, with eyes that seemed to absorb everything. I had read about this great man, seen his picture in the newspaper, and had often heard the adults talking about him.
At the time, I was 15 years old, and was one of nine African American teenagers whose safety was in jeopardy because we were on the front lines of a civil rights struggle Dr. King had helped to start. We nine Arkansas teenagers were stuck in the civil rights struggle to integrate schools. We were caught amid a firestorm of controversy among states' rights advocates, gun-toting segregationists, and proponents of the supremacy of federal law.
Dr. King had come to this secret meeting of NAACP leaders gathered to discuss how to keep us—the "Little Rock Nine," as we were called—alive in the face of mounting violence.
We were in the deep throes of learning what it means to take a nonviolent stand. We had become the instruments in a legal challenge to desegregate Little Rock Central High School. This was following the United States Supreme Court decision that "separate is not equal" (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954).
During that meeting, as Dr. King continued to look at all of us with his probing gaze, he moved slowly, as though there was no rush. When he took his seat, he continued to look around with purpose, his laser-like eyes landing on each of our faces. During these long minutes, which to me seemed to collect into an hour, he said nothing. I could even hear him breathe softly. By virtue of his presence—so still, so silent—every one of the folks in the room, some 15 adults and teenagers, also fell silent. We were compelled to give him our undivided attention. Finally, after a long silence, he began to speak.
Dr. King's words were slow and melodic. At the beginning, I was eager to speed him up, to have him give some advice that would somehow rescue me from the hard place in which I found myself. The daily physical and verbal barrage I faced as we tried to desegregate the high school had made me more frightened than I had ever been before. I had begun to realize the truth of my situation—the possibility that I could die at the hands of white segregationists who would rather see me dead than sitting beside their children in a classroom setting they had claimed exclusively as theirs for generations.
I had never before been forced to take stock of myself in this way. I'd always known that my only salvation was my faith in God. But now, the child in me wanted human rescue. I wanted Dr. King to say the words that would ease my pain and restore my innocence. Over and over again my grandmother India, and my mother, Lois, had always told me: "God is your only protection. God is your life."
During the course of this conversation with Dr. King, I mostly listened, hoping that somehow he had the words that would magically free me from my commitment to claim my civil rights. Yet, as he spoke, I felt his words and his presence thrusting me deeper into my commitment. He was so solidly grounded in the belief that all men, women, and children are equal and that they must demand to be treated as equals. In his presence, I couldn't shrink into my personal fears. He was so totally unselfish, and exhibited such absolute faith in protection for those who do God's will, I felt I had no right to turn back—to abandon my task.
"You are not doing this for yourself," he said, "but for generations yet unborn." Stunned by his words, I sat back in my chair and stopped my silent whining and complaining. I began to feel embarrassed that I had given in to my selfish feelings.
I wondered about this Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man of medium height, chocolate complexion like mine, and an almost ordinary appearance, except for his eyes and powerful carriage. What spiritual energy propelled him always forward? What did he know about God's will that I had not yet learned?
Now, 50 years after the Brown decision, and some 47 years after that meeting—just as I do at this time every year—I think more about Dr. King, about who he really was, and what he stood for. Just as he promised, I have survived, against all odds. I know it was the act of stopping to listen to God, as Dr. King also did, that sustained me. A line from the Bible—and one that Mary Baker Eddy also quotes in Science and Health—is that we must "pray without ceasing" (I Thess. 5:17; p. 15). I know I am here today because of unceasing prayer, and from taking time to ponder God's will for me.
I wondered about this Dr. King. What did he know about God's will that I had not yet learned?
In analyzing Dr. King's journey, I remember the truism that action speaks louder than words. I cannot forget that he took so much time to look into my eyes, and into the eyes of everyone in that room. With that pause, he confirmed my value as a human being. He had taken time to acknowledge and value every human being in his presence. It made me feel so special for that moment. I wonder what the world would be like today if each of us took time to value other human beings as he did.
Dr. King's manner compelled us all to stop and be reminded to listen for God's direction, just as he was doing. The strength that enabled him to take action in support of his beliefs remains a universal stream from which others can draw so that they, too, can claim what has always been rightfully theirs—respect, equality, opportunity. It is a stream available to every human being.
On January 15, 2004, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would have celebrated his 75th birthday. The human Dr. King has made his transition into a place beyond our limited understanding. And yet, more than 34 years after his departure, his prayers, thoughts, dreams, and philosophies, surround us. In this way, he is still with us. Dr. King's spirit lives on with such vitality that it continues to churn and move and compel me to think about nonviolence, about giving personally, and achieving personal best. And above all else, about striving to be kind and loving no matter what the circumstance.
Dr. King lived a life that was a testimony to the uniqueness of God's ideas. He grew up in a southern state where during his youth African American people were not respected or listened to. In some cases, they were not even treated as human beings. Nevertheless, his father, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr., embraced the written word, first in the Bible and then in great intellectual books. This love of learning would profoundly influence the development of his son.
Looking back, Dr. King, Jr.'s, God-given ability to speak was honed by his and his father's commitment to God—to ministering and to preaching the words of the Bible. As a young man, Dr. King, Jr., was already winning awards for his ability to influence others. It would be the spoken word, instead of violence, that he would use in his struggle for equal rights. His gift of words, prayer, and deep insight would help him chisel a mantle of nonviolence that would be the platform on which he built a movement. And this movement would change the course of American history and elevate the quality of the lives of millions of folks like me.
Happy Birthday, Dr. King. I thank you.
Melba Beals is the author of several books including the award-winning Warriors Don't Cry. She heads the communications department at Dominican University in San Rafael, California.