From Carthage to Memphis – Martin Luther King & Joseph Smith

FROM CARTHAGE TO MEMPHIS – relating the lives of Martin Luther King and Joseph Smith

(A talk originally given in January 1989 by Chris Kite at the Chicago 1st Ward. This talk solely represents the views of the author and is not a statement of this site or the Church.)

Tomorrow is a state and federal holiday for celebrating the birth and life of Dr. Martin Luther King. Most schools will be closed and many will have a day off from work. Many churches and community groups will have special observances. In our sacrament meetings, we should always come to worship Our Heavenly Father and to take the Lord’s sacrament. The meeting is never dedicated to any other person, even if that person is a prophet of our church. However, we do recognize that our Heavenly Father works with people in many different ways to bring about His Work. The Light of Christ is given to all mankind to lead them in life. As Latter Day Saints, we have been admonished to seek out the good wherever it may be. I have done much over the last week to review and think about the life of Dr. King and I feel impressed with the many great Gospel principles we can gain from studying his life and speeches. Although I will make reference to some events in Dr. King’s life, my message is focused on these ideas:

– All of us who have lived, who are living, or who will live are truly brothers and sisters in the spirit.

– We have the moral call to use love as a tool to fight hatred and prejudice. As in the famous hymn, we must be Christian soldiers.

– We can overcome our own prejudices through repentance, humility, and a willingness to learn.

– God can work with us to give us strength and courage to do what we feel is right.

– Freedom, dignity, and salvation are more important than life itself. In 1963 in Birmingham, Dr. King, in one of his many moving speeches said, “No man is free if he fears death.” In 1968, he had a premonition of his death. He said he had been to the mountain top and was ready to die even if he did not see the Promised Land.

– Great leaders are often controversial. They confront difficult issues and difficult times. In such controversies, some people will inevitably have valid criticisms or concerns. However many lies and vicious rumors are often perpetuated regarding the leader because of his or her stance.

– We may not agree with all that such a leader says or does, but we should hold fast that which is good and let it grow in our souls.

As I look at these ideas, I realize that Dr. King, in his speeches and by his actions, showed that principles and ideals were far more important than tributes and honors given him.  In his final speech before he was killed, he asked that he not be remembered for his Nobel Peace Prize (given in 1964 as the youngest recipient ever) or his many other awards.  He preferred to be remembered as one who tried to love his fellow man, as one who tried to feed the hungry and clothe the naked as the Savior asks us to do.  He wanted to be remembered as a drum major for Love, and a drum major for Peace.  The same drum beat should call us.

And so my mind is cast on these principles as well as on various people and events in my life and throughout history.  Here are some different events that my mind ties together.

About five years ago, Tom Johnson, two of his daughters, Mindy and Elizabeth, and I attended a funeral for Sister Mattie Lancaster.  At the time, Tom Johnson was bishop of the Chicago 1st Ward in addition to his occupation as lawyer and his role as father in a fine family. Over the years I have learned much from him and have grown from his spirit.  As Bishop, he conducted the funeral.  His eulogy gave testimony to the plan of salvation and the reality of the resurrection.

Mattie Lancaster had joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in her later years.  Her passing came about a year or so after her baptism.  Bishop Johnson recalled how Mattie was always grateful for having received the fullness of the restored Gospel.  She was a kind and loving soul.  The funeral was held on the south side of Chicago where most of her life long friends still lived.

The other speaker at her funeral was Father Clemens who is well known for his efforts to improve life in his community.  You may know him for his practical as well as symbolic example of the need for parents to adopt black children as well as children with special needs.  Although as a Catholic priest he would never be married, he felt the call to be a single parent.  He was able to persuade authorities to bend the rules due to the critical needs of these children.  I have recently thought that I would like to contact Father Clemens to see if, by chance, he remembers me and to share with him the news and thoughts about our adoption of a beautiful baby girl who is biracial.

At the funeral, I sang a very spiritually moving song, one that has been my favorite.  The music is from Anton Dvorak’s New World Symphony.  The song is called “Goin’ Home”.  Though the music and lyrics were not originally created for each other, they found a perfect fit across lines of time and culture.  The story goes that after hearing the music, a man felt inspired to set the words of an old spiritual to the music.  As I sang “Goin’ Home”, several in the congregation gave out their “Amens”.  To a degree, I wish the LDS Church had a stronger tradition of “Amens” and congregational participation.  At least our leaders have encouraged us to give a strong “Amen” at the close of talks and prayers.

      Goin’ home, goin’ home, I’m just goin’ home …

     Mother’s there, expecting me, Father’s waiting, too.

     Lots of folks gathered there, all the friends I knew.

It was interesting to see the visual contrast between Tom Johnson’s lovely blond, light skinned daughters, the two of us, and the handsome, warm, and friendly dark skinned congregation.  But on a spiritual level, there was only harmony as we shared in the same gospel light of faith and hope regardless of various backgrounds or beliefs.  Certainly, this type of scene was one that Dr. King yearned to see, one he did see in his dreams, where people of different color and different walks of life come together in brotherhood.

Now is still the time to share in the dream that this nation would arise up and live the true meaning of its creed;  that we would not judge a man by the color of his skin, but by his character.  A recurrent theme of the Book of Mormon is that this land is a promised land and that the people must live God’s law in order to be blessed.

In 2nd Nephi 26:33 we read: “… the Lord … inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.”  This land was built on a vision of freedom.

Mattie Lancaster was and is a Latter Day Saint who knew well this vision.  She experienced many things in her life – trials, turmoil, changes, and new freedom.  The Restored Gospel gave her even more freedom and a new perspective.

This scene in Chicago certainly contrasts much of what Dr. King saw in Chicago in 1966 – the hatred and violence.  The demonstrations and marches he led were by nature controversial.  At one end of the spectrum, some activists wanted to see greater action, more force, even violent means to bring about change.  On the other side, many people did not want Dr. King to rock the boat or thought it was too idealistic to think that such dramatic changes could occur.  Although people would agree with many principles he voiced, they were afraid that emotions would be so stirred up that things would end up worse than they were.  Some worried or believed that subversive and radical groups would twist the movement.  Others were simply opposed to its goals and thought that races should be segregated.

It was a difficult time.  Our nation had weathered the upheavals of the Second World War and was soon after in another war in Korea.  People felt threatened by changes at home and abroad.  Though often sensationalized, the threat of Communism was a very real concern.  We also experienced dramatic social changes in family life and morality.

Why could we not leave things as is, avoid too much change at once, just make changes slowly?

But change must come and God’s truth must keep marching on. Change is difficult, but the longer we postpone needed reforms, the more difficult they are to resolve.

Consider the roots of our nation’s racial strife.  We acknowledge God’s inspiration to this country’s founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson.  Though the change from slavery would have been difficult at our nation’s birth, imagine the great suffering and waste of life and wealth that would have been avoided by following his original declaration to condemn slavery.

Soon after the church was restored, Mormon communities were greatly affected by the nation’s political and social strife over slavery and other issues. As a modern Moses, Brigham Young had to lead the Saints away from the evils of the nation; while God raised a modern Abraham to preserve and change the Union.

The Restored Gospel often asks people to make difficult changes in their lives.  We see the growth that occurs when people seek to follow Gospel principles.  Yet, often we see that people are too comfortable and satisfied with their lives to make the necessary effort.  We ask them to consider the inspiration of Joseph Smith and the other prophets, yet they have difficulty accepting that God would work through a human being with all the real or imagined weaknesses that critics may ascribe.

As I look at the life of Dr. King, I can not help but see similarities to the life of Joseph Smith.  Certainly there are differences, but consider the common ground.  Joseph Smith came from a poor and humble family, one that had religious vision and that struggled for ways of improving its lot in life.  Like Dr. King, Joseph Smith, Jr. was named after his father.  Joseph Smith felt that he had a clear call from God to do what he did.

When he brought his message to the world, many people were disturbed.  His teaching of a restored church  and gospel with its many miracles threatened the established order of religions and society.  Ministers and other leaders saw him as a threat to their power and authority.  The doctrines he preached said that God was not satisfied with any of the existing churches and that a Zion society would be established by the Latter Day Saints in preparation for Christ’s Second Coming.  Joseph Smith was charismatic leader and a great speaker.  He and the Latter Day Saints had to move from state to state seeking freedom.  People were prejudiced against the Mormons.  Many rumors and false beliefs were spread about the Saints, and particularly Joseph Smith.  They were persecuted by mobs who burned their homes, took away their rights, and killed them.

Consider the times when Joseph Smith was unjustly put in jail for his beliefs.  Out of these moments of trial and despair came moments of great inspiration.  Dr. King wrote inspiring letters from jail.  Joseph Smith gave us the beautiful and moving Section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants.  Consider some scriptures from this section while I add some phrases from the speeches of Dr. King.

1. O God, where art thou ?  And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place ?

2. How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye … behold … the wrongs of thy people … ?  How long, not long.

3. Yea, O Lord, how long shall they suffer these wrongs and unlawful oppressions ?  How long, not long.

How long before thine heart shall be softened toward them ?  How long, not long.

How long before thy bowels be moved with compassion toward them?  How long, not long.

7. My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment;

– Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

8. And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes.

– Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we are freed at last.

Then the revelation on the power of priesthood is given.

41. No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;

42. By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile –

(You may hate us and curse us, but) we will still love you.

43. Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;

(We must) rise up and stand for our rights. Not with malice, (we must) always fight with love.

44. That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.

No man is free if he fears death.

45. Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.

We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

46. The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places shall be made plain, and the crooked places shall be made straight and the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

May we share in these visions of our destiny as brothers and sisters, and children of God, I pray in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

2 thoughts on “From Carthage to Memphis – Martin Luther King & Joseph Smith”

  1. Pingback: Points of Interest, #23 « Mind, Soul, and Body

  2. A few comparisons
    Joseph killed at age 38
    Martin killed at age 39

    Both spoke of the promised land in the mountains

    Both were named after their fathers

    Both were revolutionaries

    I suggest there is a spiritual connection between the two!

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