Sometimes I find the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s
life ritualized each January unsatisfactory because it presents his life as a
simple, shallow narrative of success. The celebration focuses on the victories
and not on the process to get there. The holiday treats King as a monolith, not
a man who became who he was by evolving and changing.

The struggle for civil rights is perhaps one of the most
important moments in defining the maturing national character of the United
States. To me, King’s brilliance is in his process and what that reveals about
social change, leadership, and the ability to live in dark times with love,
light, and hope.

As an undergraduate history major, one of the best courses I
took was the social and intellectual history of the United States. The study of
the fight for civil rights was a prominent theme in that course (and in subsequent
courses). I think I understand his work on a continuum: how he grew and changed
as he and others shaped the fight around them. Jonathan P. Hicks, in a lovely reflection on King’s legacy calls attention
to King’s initial reluctance to become involved with the bus boycott. Hicks
writes:

Somehow, there is a special
significance to celebrating the King of 1955, the hesitant champion of highly
orchestrated disobedience. There is a significance to celebrating the person
who, despite clear danger, is guided by a moral imperative, by conscious and by
faith to step into uncertainty and threat.

We forget that King himself evolved and changed. He grew
into the leader we now know him to be, but
for him too, making justice happen
was a long process of becoming.

In thinking about the struggle for equal rights for the
LGBTQ community in our church and our society today, I am continually struck by
many of the parallels: the life-long battle for justice, the reluctance of the
church to fight for justice (in King’s time, the white church), and the need to
move determinedly ahead no matter what. It must have been exhausting to live a
life of constant struggle, facing emotional and physical harm. And certainly
King was frustrated, tired, and angry along the way. Yet King continually
modeled peace. Certainly his faith sustained him. Certainly his family and
friends sustained him. Certainly the swell of people willing to put their lives
and bodies on the line to join him in the fight sustained him.

In awarding the Nobel Prize for Peace to King in 1964,
Gunnar Jahn, then Chair of the Nobel Committee noted:

But it was not because he led a
racial minority in their struggle for equality that Martin Luther King achieved
fame. Many others have done the same, and their names have been forgotten. Luther King’s name will endure for
the way in which
 he has waged his struggle, personifying in his conduct the
words that were spoken to mankind: Whosoever shall smite thee on thy
right cheek, turn to him the other also!

I paused when I read those words today: “for the way in
which he has waged his struggle.” The way in which he waged his struggle:
peacefully, unrelentingly, determinedly, with others, and over time—a long
time. Important lessons for the continued fight for civil rights, for racial
justice, and for a better, more peaceful world.

King’s story is the story of the price of justice, the cost
of fighting for what you believe is right, and learning how to stay the course
no matter how challenging, how overwhelming, how impossible it may seem. Can
any of us engaged in the battle for LGBTQ equality claim that our struggle is
more exhausting, more overwhelming, more painful than the fight for racial
equality in the United States? Can any of us say that we do not also need to
continue the battle for racial equality when today hard won legal rights
coexist with continued inequality, discrimination, and injustice?

I badly needed to remind myself of Martin Luther King Jr.’s
amazing journey. His life, his journey, his evolution, has reminded me that
while I am impatient for justice, I cannot let that impatience turn into a
frustration of impotence and inaction. King’s story doesn’t have a quick
beginning and end. It’s almost all middle: the long story of making justice
happen not when and how we want to get to a pat end result. King taught us how
to make justice happen everyday in every way we can. He taught us that justice
is evolving and that we, too, are beings engaged in a process of becoming.

Wishing you a day of dwelling in the complexities, the
challenges, and the process of making justice happen.

J. Elizabeth Clark

J. Elizabeth Clark, a lifelong United Methodist, is Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College--CUNY in New York City. She has been active in reconciling ministries in the former Wyoming Annual Conference and in the New York Annual Conference. She has always been called to Wesley's charge to social justice, with particular passion for LGBTQ issues, racial equality, women's health and reproductive justice, HIV/AIDS, and homelessness and poverty. In the wake of General Conference 2012, she is currently researching new congregations, both UMC and other denominations, that have a strong commitment to the LGBTQ community.
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