James C. Harrington
One of the most important — and often overlooked — moments of the civil rights movement was Martin Luther King’s midnight “kitchen table experiment” in 1956, which shaped its future and ours.
King was 27 and in his second year as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, near the capital of Alabama. He had helped lead the city’s bus boycott, which led to an ongoing barrage of death threats to his home, by mail and by phone. Some days there were as many as 30 to 40 calls, often in the evenings, trying to force him to return to Atlanta.
King would simply put the phone down and, if nightfall, go back to bed. But a call, around midnight on January 27, became crucial.
As his wife, Coretta, and their baby girl slept nearby, the male caller said, “N—–, we’re tired of your mess. And if you don’t leave this town in three days, we’re going to blow up your house and blow your brains out.
Shaken more than usual, King, as it was later recounted, went into their little kitchen, made a coffee pot, buried his face in his hands and prayed out loud, “Lord, I’m here trying to do what’s right… But I’m scared… I have to admit… I’m losing my courage.
King, in his own words, said, “I could hear a voice inside me saying, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for the truth. Stand up for justice. Stand up for justice. I’ll be by your side.'”
His fear subsided at this point and left him, but never the threats. A bomb exploded on the front steps of his modest home three nights later. Fortunately, no one got hurt.
From the damaged porch, King called on his supporters to come out of their anger, non-violence and love for their enemies.
Dr. King lived fearlessly for another 12 years, always moving forward, knowing that his life was in danger… “if I am arrested, this movement will not stop.” The world is better for his life without fear.
What we can learn from King’s “Kitchen Table Experience” is the importance of spiritual grounding to move forward in the difficult and sometimes perilous struggle for justice, letting no fear deflect our journey. .
King learned his grounding from Howard Thurman and Reverend James Larson, forerunners of Mohandas Gandhi’s black liberation and nonviolence theology. It was worn by “the Negro Spirituals”.
Spiritual grounding is essential. Our human history teaches us that. It’s not about religiosity, going to church, etc., but about that deep personal spiritual grounding, regardless of one’s faith tradition (or none).
If we lack this tether, our pursuit of justice will be short-lived, snatched away by distraction or fear of societal disapproval, retaliation, physical danger, financial insecurity, etc. – the list is long.
The community grows because we give back; it does not grow in a vacuum.
Our annual commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. should honor not only him, but all those who fought in danger for themselves without fear. We should reflect on how their deep spirituality brought them (and us) closer to the dream.
Consider Harriet Tubman, Fanny Lou Hamer, John Lewis and all those anonymous individuals before us, many of whom have faced repercussions or death. We should honor and emulate their spiritual foundation and fearless courage.
Black Lives Matter took a challenge and put it directly in our face. Likewise, the pandemic, now two years in the making, has laid bare the extravagant economic upheavals that oppress people of color and the poor.
Many want to take up the challenge. Others will drift in their solipsism. People who want to be part of those working for justice should consider grounding themselves deeper in order to be faithful to the fight without fear.
Harrington, retired founder of the Texas Civil Rights Project, is an Episcopal priest in Austin.