Martin Luther King, Jr., 1929-1968: In Memoriam

by Gilbert H. Caldwell

Mr. Caldwell, minister of First United Methodist Church, New Haven, Connecticut, also serves as lecturer at Yale University divinity school and as chairman of the board, National Conference of Black Churchmen.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 31, 1976, pp. 308-310. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


It is possible to kill a human being but not an idea. Let us confess to God how often we destroy dreams with our apathy, violate visions with our sophisticated arrogance, and prevent prophecy with our politics of pragmatism.

Men and women who have dreams, who see visions, and who then have the audacity to prophesy in word and deed have been described by the sustainers of the status quo of every age as being drunk. As Peter had to explain at Pentecost: "For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day" (Acts 2:15). A variety of epithets is employed to put down the dreamers, visionaries and prophets; they may be referred to as outside agitators, troublemakers, people with chips on their shoulders, maladjusted individuals, and so on.

The people who use terms of this sort do so in order to divert attention from prophetic activity. These people are assassins, making their deadly attempts by attacking competence, experience and character. When these attacks fail, those who use the gun take over and complete the dirty deeds.


But throughout history assassins have failed to realize that one can, "slay the dreamer but not the dream." It is possible to kill a human being but not an idea. This message speaks clearly on this occasion, the commemoration of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.

We are reminded through the death of Dr. King that a man or woman who demonstrates faith, in a faithless age is certain to be misunderstood and liable to be attacked and abused. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a product of the southern black experience: son of a Baptist preacher, graduate of Morehouse College, holder of a Ph.D. degree in systematic theology, black preacher, prophet in word and deed -- Martin Luther King, Jr., came on too strong for a nation that had from its very inception used so much of its energy in declaring black people invisible, irrelevant, null and void. America looked at Martin King’s academic accomplishments and said he was uppity. America responded to his cry for justice for black people by declaring that preachers ought to concern themselves with the suffering world. When he spoke out on Vietnam, he was told that he ought to stick to problems in this land. When he confronted unjust laws, people said he should stick to God’s laws, but when he did just that, they said "law and order" must prevail. The abuse he experienced is that which comes to anyone who dares to demythologize the myths that sustain a sick society.

Acts 2:16-18 describes God’s democratic activity in the dispensing of dreams, visions and prophecy; sons and daughters, young men and old men, menservants and maidservants -- all are on the receiving end of God’s particular activity in history. Sometimes we forget that historic juxtaposition of Rosa Parks and Martin King. It was Rosa Parks on that Montgomery bus who said with her body: "I will not be moved." Her determination to stay put started a movement that has inspired numbers of subsequent liberation efforts. In his book The Days of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Putnam, 1971), Jim Bishop tells of the first of those days, in December 1955:

The driver looked. All the seats were filled. A few whites stood up front. "All right, all right," he said, looking at Mrs. Parks and two other blacks. "Come on. Get in the back." Rosa Parks looked up at the strong white man at her side, waiting. Three blacks got up and walked to the back. "Get out of that seat," the driver said, pointing at Mrs. Parks. All he saw was a small dark woman with a circlet of braids and a glint of light from her glasses.

"No," she said, "I won’t."

The way God speaks to people, the way God uses people, is amazing and magnificent. The wisdom of the world would not have chosen Rosa Parks and Martin King to act together for that moment in history. She was a seamstress, he was a scholar; she made dresses for white women, he preached the gospel to black folk; she had taken no theology courses to enable her to comprehend God’s claim on her, while he had studied so much theology that he was not expected to take God’s claims seriously. Yet, despite the fact that the world would have difficulty in casting these two persons in a drama of social change, God did use a seamstress and a scholar/ preacher to bring about a radically altered way of life.


People forget about God’s democracy. It is so easy to become racial, sexual, academic and class chauvinists, to pretend that God has spoken most distinctly to my group or to that group. Some are convinced that God spoke clearly in the Council of Hartford -- William Sloane Coffin was there -- while others say God spoke more clearly in the Council of Boston -- Harvey Cox was there. I might say that God spoke most clearly at the World Council in Nairobi because Gilbert Caldwell was there.

After identifying the places where and those to whom God has spoken, people become convinced that, from then onward, God has laryngitis, writer’s cramp, production problems. But the biblical story serves as a reminder that God is no respecter of persons, that the word is spoken and heard in shacks and mansions, churches and classrooms, and that it reaches scholars and illiterates.

In 1976, in reflecting on the response to God’s word as revealed through Martin Luther King, Jr., it becomes necessary to say that instead of creating new community, what has been created is new chaos. We blacks have moved from segregation to desegregation, but our basic condition and position in American society have not changed. We who were once invisible are now, visible, but we have presence without power. The nation’s institutions have been seductive in their efforts to recruit us. But after we have been seduced into becoming "a part of" them, we have discovered once again our impotence in American society. We are still unable to help restructure those institutions that once structured us out.

We are to be seen but not heard. We are used to attract new money and new participants and to satisfy conscience, but we are told in a hundred ways that our experience, our expertise have nothing to contribute toward major issues. Our gifts become universal when we display them in the world of music or athletics, but we have no gifts to offer in decision-making, reorganizing, restructuring.


But, as always, Scripture holds us up against God’s continual and continuing involvement in history, and this is the source of our hope. It was the internalization of this hope that served as Martin Luther King’s moving power; thus he could "have a dream" and say "I’ve been to the mountaintop"-- for without dreams there are no mountaintop experiences.

The biblical story tells us time and time again that, important though analysis of estrangement may he, God is about reconciliation. We see this and experience it in Jesus Christ. God’s reconciliation is neither cheap nor premature, but is the kind that does justice to the integrity of creation. As James Baldwin pointed out years ago: "Who wants to be integrated into a burning house?" We are called, therefore, to build those new houses that accommodate all of God’s children.

On this the eighth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King the dreamer, let us -- blacks and whites, together -- dream of a nation whose business, rather than being the kind meant by Calvin Coolidge, is justice and liberation which come only with a redistribution of power. On this day when we remember Martin Luther King the visionary, let us have a vision of what my church, what your church, would look like if we dared hold up the torch he held so high.

In our observance of the nation’s bicentennial year, as we remember Martin Luther King the prophet, let us become prophets of word and deed -- prophets who believe what we have heard, who act on what we know to be true, who know that the Lord is a stronghold in times of trouble and live in the knowledge that the Lord is our rock, our fortress and our deliverer.

Let us confess to God how often we destroy dreams with our apathy, violate visions with our sophisticated arrogance, and prevent prophecy with our politics of pragmatism. Let us ask God to enable us to dream again, to free us up so that we envision a new day, and then to let us be prophets of liberation and reconciliation.