April 4: Martin Luther King, Jr, Civil Rights Leader and Martyr, 1968

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.


Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta. As the son and grandson of Baptist preachers, he was steeped in the Black Church tradition. To this heritage he added a thorough academic preparation, earning the degrees of B.A., B.D., and Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Boston University.

In 1954, King became pastor of a church in Montgomery, Alabama. There, Black indignation at inhumane treatment on segregated buses culminated in December, 1955, in the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat to a white man. King was catapulted into national prominence as the leader of the Montgomery bus boycott. He became increasingly the articulate prophet, who could not only rally the Black masses, but could also move the consciences of Whites.

King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to spearhead non-violent mass demonstrations against racism. Many confrontations followed, most notably in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, and in Chicago. King’s campaigns were instrumental to the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, 1965 and 1968. King then turned his attention to economic empowerment of the poor and opposition to the Vietnam War, contending that racism, poverty and militarism were interrelated.

King lived in constant danger: his home was dynamited, he was almost fatally stabbed, and he was harassed by death threats. He was even jailed 30 times; but through it all he was sustained by his deep faith. In 1957, he received, late at night, a vicious telephone threat. Alone in his kitchen he wept and prayed. He relates that he heard the Lord speaking to him and saying, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice,” and promising never to leave him alone—“No, never alone.” King refers to his vision as his “Mountain-top Experience.”

After preaching at Washington Cathedral on March 31, 1968, King went to Memphis in support of sanitation workers in their struggle for better wages. There, he proclaimed that he had been “to the mountain-top” and had seen “the Promised Land,” and that he knew that one day he and his people would be “free at last.” On the following day, April 4, he was cut down by an assassin’s bullet.



I    Almighty God, who by the hand of Moses thy servant didst lead thy people out of slavery, and didst make them free at last: Grant that thy Church, following the example of thy prophet Martin Luther King, may resist oppression in the name of thy love, and may strive to secure for all thy children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

II     Almighty God, by the hand of Moses your servant you led your people out of slavery, and made them free at last: Grant that your Church, following the example of your prophet Martin Luther King, may resist oppression in the name of your love, and may secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.


Genesis 37:17b-20

Ephesians 6:10-20

Luke 6:27-36

Psalm 77:11-20

Preface of Baptism

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

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We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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22 thoughts on “April 4: Martin Luther King, Jr, Civil Rights Leader and Martyr, 1968

  1. The second paragraph is full of HWHM’s idiosyncratic capitalizations. “Black indignation” and “Black masses,” bur a “white man.” I don’t think any of these should but capitalized, but if SCLM wants to do otherwise, at least do so cconsistently.

    In the collect, change “prophet” to “prophet and martyr” and add “Jr.” after “King.”

  2. This commemoration is already included in the Calendar. The Hebrew Scripture reading and the New Testament reading are new.

  3. In spite of the fact that ‘everybody knows’ who MLK is … he needs a ‘who he is’ and ‘why he is important’ statement.

    New Hebrew Scripture reading: I don’t think this is the right choice. Sure, it is about a ‘dreamer’ but that does not make it automatically connected to the ‘I have a dream’ speech of MLK’s at the Lincoln Memorial.

    This is one of two commemorations in the calendar with alternate days of observance (Bishop Holley is the other one.). We should decide which date is the ‘right’ one and stick with only one date. For MLK my vote is with the civic holiday date in January. When the rest of the country is remembering MLK on January 15th, we should be, too.

    • Re: OT lesson. Even verse 20 admits this reading is “the pits.” I would have expected a reading about God calling an OT figure to lead, or free, or deliver God’s people FROM something bad (e.g., slavery) AND TO whatever the corresponding “good” is (i.e., God’s intended state-of-affairs) — ideally, without violence. (Moses, Jeremiah’s call, Suffering Servant come to mind.) The present selection loses the big picture and is mired in one detail, and that one detail (as major as it is) isn’t even well represented by Joseph’s brothers.

  4. “King lived in constant danger: his home was dynamited, he was almost fatally stabbed, and he was harassed by death threats. He was even jailed 30 times…” EVEN jailed? Does that top dynamite and stabbing? A Google search gives between 12 and 29 as the number of times he was jailed. (The entry for 12 add “and arrested and fined at least 18 times.”) I suggest that his Letter from a Birmingham Jail also deserves mention.

    John– in the collect, how about “martyred prophet” rather than “prophet and martyr”? For some reason “your martyr” sounds wrong to me. Maybe it’s just Monday.

    • Lin, I’m cool with your “martyred prophet” alternative. I would point out, however, that the second and third collects “Of a Martyr” in the Common of the Saints in the 1979 BCP both use the phrase “your holy martyr.”

  5. I think that, instead of Genesis 37:17b-20 as the OT reading, it makes more sense to use Exodus 3:7-12.

  6. My first thought on reading “Black masses” was Satanic, but it’s actually Marxist. I’m not comfortable with the implication that King could simply “rally the Black masses” but had to appeal to the “consciences of Whites.” The Soviets used to distinguish between “agitation” — simple emotional appeals for the working classes — and “propaganda” — sophisticated theoretical arguments for the intelligentsia. Our separated brethren are already convinced we’re communists as well as heretics. Let’s not give them proof.
    As noted above and previously, HWHM needs to adopt a style book and follow it. “Negro” and “Caucasian” are generally capitalized (Caucasian because it’s a proper noun, and Negro for symmetry), while “black” and “white” probably shouldn’t be. Fashions change: “black” was once considered offensive, “Negro” was not generally capitalized before World War II, and the once-preferred “Afro-American” now is rejected as “too colonial.” “African American” seems to be the current favorite, although you can’t think too hard about it. (What do you call the descendants of an Egyptian Arab or a white South African who emigrated to the US and became a citizen?) Future editors will find it very useful if terminology is standardized, so once-acceptable terms can be easily replaced.

  7. Martin Luther King, Jr.
    I love this commemoration. Thank you to those who composed it. MLK Jr is someone I’m in awe of, thankful for, and as Elisha did with regards to Elijah, wish I (and others) shared much more greatly his courageous heart and insightful spirit.
    I may be reading incorrectly, but from the first paragraph I had the impression he earned all three degrees from Boston University, when such is not the case (and probably the wording was not so intended). Intended or not, I think it should be changed. (Why even identify or single out any of the three institutions?)
    (“…earning the degrees of B.A., B.D., and Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Boston University.”)
    In the final paragraph, mention of the Washington Cathedral antecedent to saying he had been to the “mountaintop” and had seen the “promised land” makes it sound as if the Cathedral was the mountaintop. I don’t see any other independent point in mentioning his having preached there on March 31, and his “mountaintop” reference was likely about an even more divine epiphany than visiting the Episcopal Cathedral. Any chance that bit might get changed?
    Other comments on this blog raise pertinent points better than I can, but along with questions about upper case letters, I have to question “Mountain-top Experience.” There’s no question that it references an awesome experience, but I don’t know a rule of grammar that calls for the upper case letters. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary shows “mountaintop” as a single word, not capitalized, and without benefit of hyphen. (The same source shows “promised land” as two words, sans caps.)
    The collect is a good one. I don’t know the exact line between too sparse and too wordy, and this one pulls me in both directions simultaneously. “Almighty God” for this commemoration seems like another missed opportunity – it strikes me as unreflective boilerplate generic for “Dear God….” The attribute that makes sense to me for MLK Jr isn’t “almighty” it’s liberator, life giver, deliverer from slavery, even alpha and omega in the sense of creator and fulfillment. “God, who through Moses led your people out of slavery to become a light to the nations and a covenant to the peoples,…” (The “to” is just as important as “freedom FROM” (“Freedom TO” or “freedom FOR something”). “From,” by itself, is just the “getting away” part.)
    The collect implies a “so that,” but I like it more when it is explicit. (Maybe I’ve mentioned that before?)
    The Ephesians selection seems excellent. The Gospel selection isn’t bad, but leaves me wondering what Desmond Tutu might have chosen, instead. (I’m thinking of the “Truth and Reconciliation” work he did, which strikes a note of restorative justice reflected in the very expression “truth and reconciliation,” and is not entirely covered in this selection.)
    The OT lesson received comments from others, as well as my previous comment. Suzanne and Bryan have good suggestions; I like Bryan’s as stated (Exodus 3:7-12), and I like Suzanne’s Isaiah 51:4-8 (perhaps expanded 4-11, or else Isa 42:1-9) and I like her Jeremiah 23:1-6, although my inclination would begin and end some verses different, 4-8.
    The Psalm 77 selection celebrates God’s Exodus/Red Sea (and maybe Sinai) theophanies and the deliverance from Egypt. Psalm 99 would also be a possibility (unless you wouldn’t want to say “O mighty King” today – verse 4!):
    99(BCP) The LORD is king; let the people tremble! He is enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth shake.
    2 The LORD is great in Zion; he is high above all the peoples.
    3 Let them confess his Name, which is great and awesome; he is the Holy One.
    4 O mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.
    5 Proclaim the greatness of the LORD our God and fall down before his footstool; he is the Holy One.
    6 Moses and Aaron among his priests, and Samuel among those who call upon his name. They called upon the LORD, and he answered them.
    7 He spoke to them out of the pillar of cloud; they kept his testimonies and the decree that he gave them.
    8 “O LORD our God, you answered them indeed; you were a God who forgave them, yet punished them for their evil deeds.”
    9 Proclaim the greatness of the LORD our God and worship him upon his holy hill; for the LORD our God is the Holy One.
    And, even if nothing is changed, I’ll still rejoice in this commemoration!
    FYI: He attended the Atlanta public schools. Following graduation from Morehouse College (Atlanta, GA) in 1948, King entered Crozer Theological Seminary (Chester, PA), having been ordained the previous year into the ministry of the National Baptist Church. He graduated from Crozer in 1951 and received his doctorate in theology from Boston University in 1955.
    (Based on info in http://www.answers.com/topic/martin-luther-king-jr )

    • Actually, the cathedral sits atop Mount Saint Alban, which is the highest point in the District of Columbia, but I agree that that’s probably not the “mountaintop” Dr. King had in mind.

      If the cathedral reference must remain, may it please be called the “National Cathedral,” not the “Washington Cathedral,” “National” being the short name preferred by those who work at National Cathedral Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Washington.

  8. “Lord or all…” might be better in the collect invocation. (I had simply written “God” — “God, who through Moses led your people out of slavery to become a light to the nations and a covenant to the peoples,…”

  9. The remarks listed as being made in Memphis were surely made in Washington in his famous “I have a dream” speech.

      • From Byron Rushing of Massachusetts”

        The last sentences of the Memphis speech are–

        Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it 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 I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

        The free at last quote was not used in that speech–but was in lots of others–and is confusing placed in this paragraph.”

      • And more from Byron Rushing of Massachusetts:

        Free at last… of course is from a spiritual. Most white Americans probably heard it for the first time when he used it at the end of the Washington speech–note that he was including more than just his people who would be free.

        When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual,

        Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

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