John Sentamu: Martin Luther King Jr - a dreamer, a visionary and a man who can inspire us all

John Sentamu.
John Sentamu.
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In the course of the 11 years from 1957 to 1968, Martin Luther King Jr travelled over six million miles, gave more than 2,500 speeches and addressed a quarter of a million people in his “I have a dream” speech alone.

He was also arrested on some 20 different occasions, he was imprisoned, his house was bombed, he suffered personal abuse throughout this time, and was assaulted at least four times. He was awarded five honorary degrees, was named Man of the Year by Time magazine in 1963, and he became not only the symbolic leader of African Americans but also a world leader too.

On Tuesday, it will be 50 years since King delivered his spine-tingling “I have a dream” speech, which was instrumental in facilitating the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

This landmark piece of legislation outlawed major forms of discrimination of black people, women, of people with faith or none at all, including racial segregation in schools, workplaces and public facilities. However, it was an ordinary bus journey that started his rise to prominence.

Have you ever been ordered to give up your seat for someone else on a bus by the driver? We’ve all experienced a mad dash for seats, while people sit with their earphones in, and the eyes glued to a newspaper or a book, en route to work or home. But hopefully you’ve never been told to move seat because of the colour of your skin.

In Alabama, USA, in 1955, Mrs Rosa Parks had refused to obey a bus driver’s demand that she give up her seat for a white man, and she was subsequently arrested. Her arrest led to a boycott of the Montgomery city buses for more than a year before racial segregation was ended on public transport. A new leader emerged in Martin Luther King, an American Baptist Church Minister, who began to mobilise the civil rights movement in earnest. This one man sparked a series of events that we can still learn from almost a lifetime latern.

Life’s persistent and urgent question for all of us should be: “What are we doing for others?” This is a question which challenges all the students who take on the Young Leaders Award, developed by my Youth Trust.

They study people of faith, their actions and how they bring positive changes to their community, and are then challenged themselves to “be the change they want to see”.

I often remind these young people that having an active faith is about being bold enough to take the first step, being a trailblazer and letting others follow in your path. It takes courage, it takes a yearning to make a difference, and it requires real love to bring lasting transformation.

Martin Luther King, as a Pastor, a deeply committed Christian leader, and a disciple of Jesus Christ, followed Christ’s teaching of love and inclusion. Every human being is special because everyone is created in God’s image.

Young people taking up the Young Leaders Award study leaders like Martin Luther King Jr and Mahatma Gandhi. They not only learn more about their lives, but are also inspired by their quest for justice. There is always a good time to try to do the right thing and that time is now. It’s a lesson we should all remember.

Individual action, no matter how small, can always make a difference. Where there is income generated by the Young Leaders Award, we seek to make grants to community projects.  That has already liberated many communities.

King followed Christ’s teaching of resisting peacefully what is evil, and he was also aware of the form of non-violent protest used by Mahatma Gandhi, believing that peace is not merely a distant goal but a means by which we arrive at that goal. It’s not always an easy journey to make.

In Albany, in 1961 to 1962, non-violent demonstrations were held against racial segregation. Mass arrests followed. A massive protest in Birmingham, Alabama, was led by Martin Luther King and the world watched and waited. This provided what King called a coalition of conscience and inspired his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in which he stated that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Businesses were pushed to offer jobs to people of all ethnicities, and to end segregated facilities inside shops. King also pressed for all African Americans to have voting rights.

At the age of 35, Martin Luther King Jr was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize. When notified of his selection, he announced that he would turn over the prize money of USD $54,123 to the furtherance of the civil rights movement. The summer of 1963 saw the “March on Washington” with protestors demanding an end to racial segregation in public schools and the protection of civil rights workers from police brutality.

The subsequent marches from Selma and Chicago showed violent footage of police brutality against the protesters, with King being struck by a house brick in Chicago. In 1968, King went to Memphis to support a strike by black public workers who were suffering discrimination. After addressing the supporters, King was assassinated by a sniper on the balcony of his motel.

To be a great leader such as King, you have to love, you have to set an example, you have to take action, and you have to dream. You have to have that vision and belief that you can make it better.

Remember too, that it was also the courage and resolve of a single woman that got the ball rolling. Too often, people believe that their own contribution is not important. I tell you friends, one drop of water can turn a waterwheel. Always aim high and never give up hope.

John Sentamu is the Archbishop of York.