1: The phone rang around midnight as Martin Luther King Jr. was getting ready for bed.
It was January 27th, 1956, “the most important night of his life,” says Martin’s Pulitzer-winning biographer, David Garrow, “the one he would always think back to in future years when the pressures again seemed too great.”
The man on the other end of the phone called Martin the N-word and told him, “We are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow up your house.”
The house was quiet. Martin’s wife Coretta and his newborn baby daughter Yolanda were already asleep. “I felt myself faltering and growing in fear,” he said later.
The night before, a pair of police motorcycles had tailed Martin, write Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin in Lead Yourself First. When he slowed down, the motorcycles continued to follow. When he stopped to let out some passengers, one of the officers pulled up next to the driver’s window. “Get out, King,” the officer said. “You’re under arrest for speeding 30 miles an hour in a 25-mile zone.
The police officers put Martin in the backseat. They said nothing as they drove through unfamiliar, desolate parts of town. Martin silently began to panic, “literally trembling in the backseat, seized with fear that he was about to be lynched,” the authors write. “Eventually they approached a building with a neon sign outside: MONTGOMERY CITY JAIL. Inside, he was led toward a large cell filled with common criminals.”
Martin was released later that night, but the pressures on him were immense and intensely personal. He was subject to a “citywide rumor campaign” with white citizens telling black acquaintances Martin was an ambitious, “highfalutin preacher” who had never ridden a bus himself.
2: Now, “fearful and unable to sleep, he went to the kitchen, made a cup of coffee, and sat down at the table to reflect,” the authors write. He had received death threats before, “but this time something broke loose inside him. . . I started thinking about many things,” Martin said later. “I was ready to give up.”
“I sat there and thought about a beautiful little daughter who had just been born.… I’d come in night after night and see that little gentle smile. And I sat at that table thinking about that little girl and thinking about the fact that she could be taken away from me any minute. And I started thinking about a dedicated, devoted, and loyal wife who was over there asleep. And she could be taken from me, or I could be taken from her. And I got to the point that I couldn’t take it any longer. I was weak,” Martin recalled.
Martin realized he needed to draw more deeply upon his faith than ever before: “And I discovered then that religion had become real to me, and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed down over that cup of coffee. I will never forget it … I prayed a prayer, and I prayed out loud that night. I said, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. 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.”
Then Martin received an answer:
“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’… 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.
“Almost at once,” Martin said later, “my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared.”
He would never fear bombings or other harm again.
3: Three days later, on the night of January 30th, Coretta and a friend were sitting in the King’s home when they heard something heavy land on the porch outside. They darted toward a guest bedroom as “an explosion rocked the house, filling the front room with smoke and shattered glass.” They were not harmed.
Reflecting later, Martin recalled he “accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it.”
“Exactly one year after his experience at the kitchen table,” Raymond and Michael write, “another stack of dynamite landed on the porch of his home. The fuse was defective, and the bomb did not explode. In his sermon the next morning, a Sunday, [Martin] again described his religious experience a year earlier and said, “So I’m not afraid of anybody this morning. Tell Montgomery they can keep shooting, and I’m going to stand up to them; tell Montgomery they can keep bombing, and I’m going to stand up to them.”
Martin spoke of his sense that he would be killed one day. “Because of his experience at the kitchen table, however, he faced that prospect without fear. And though King did not speak of it directly, he was surely aware of a scriptural parallel to his own experience. In the Book of Exodus, God speaks to Moses through the burning bush and orders him to return to Egypt and lead his people to freedom. Moses reacts with self-doubt: “Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt? God responds, “Certainly I will be with thee” (Exodus 3:11-12).”
Martin had been told the same thing. “Black Americans have long identified with the Israelites of the Old Testament, who were persecuted by the pharaoh,” note Raymond and Michael. “After Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt, they wander the desert for forty years. Finally, God tells Moses to ‘get thee up this mountain,’ from whose top God says he will allow Moses to see the Promised Land. And God says he will give this land ‘unto the children of Israel for a possession’ (Deuteronomy 32:48–49). But God will not let Moses himself go there; instead, God says, Moses will die on the mountain. Moses then climbs up the mountain, sees the Promised Land, and dies.
On April 3rd, 1968, Martin concluded the final speech of his life in this way:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Raymond and Michael write: Martin’s “sense from his experience at the kitchen table, that the Lord was with him each step of the way had grown into a deeper sense that, as with Moses, the Lord himself would decide when his work was done. And the following morning, it was.”