The first mass meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association on December 5, 1955, attracted several thousand attendees. The proceedings began with two appropriate hymns, "Onward Christian Soldiers" and "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." The newly elected president, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., was bold enough to describe the dilemma of black bus passengers and Rosa Park's heroic act of civil disobedience committed just four days before. Aware that discussing these issues candidly could ignite bitter, violent outbursts, King appealed to the faith of the African-American community. He encouraged his listeners to believe in the power of biblical justice. King's sermon went one step further than most of that day by encouraging them to act on their belief in divine justice and use the American tradition of legal protest.
Forty-nine years ago this month, King received 30 to 40 threatening letters or phone calls each day. King writes in "Stride Towards Freedom" that one night he received an ominous phone call just as he was about to doze off to sleep. The caller promised that before seven days passed, King would be sorry that he ever came to Montgomery, Ala. King, by his own admission, was afraid and offered a desperate prayer from his kitchen table. He felt as though he could hear an inner voice saying, stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth, and God will be at your side forever.
King's uncertainty disappeared. Three days later his house was firebombed. Steadied by his "kitchen prayer," he boldly preached to the crowd that gathered outside of his badly damaged house. He sent them away with his own firebombs of love and faith instead of a call to arms, riot or violent retaliation.
We celebrate King's birthday not just because his courage and resolve advanced civil justice for blacks. His life was also a gift to all Americans. Today, his dream is a living legacy, which is still changing the nation.
As we reflect on King's accomplishments, I cannot help asking what King would do to steer America at these crossroads. America seems to have a growing moral vacuum that must be addressed with the same courage and resolve that King exemplified. Once again the prophetic mantle that King received in the kitchen prayer is settling on black Christian leaders.
Last December, the most amazing thing happened to me. I was a guest on Tavis Smiley's show on National Public Radio discussing the moral needs of America. Someone from the left stated that the Democratic Party needed black clergy to help the party rediscover moral direction that addresses today's needs.
Just days later, the Reverend Ted Haggard of the National Association of Evangelicals (30 million strong) stood up in a racially-mixed leadership meeting and asked the black leaders there to set a new moral agenda for America. He went on to say, "If you'll lead, we will follow." Rev. Haggard's words perfectly matched the earlier statement. In our polarized social and political environment, this was truly a miracle. America's moral problems will not be solved by using stereotypic answers from the left or the right. Our nation needs a new biblically based agenda that will help us restore our moral compass.
In response to the cry for moral direction from both the left and the right, many black leaders have stepped forward to take part of King's mantle and lead the way toward a new America. One such leader was Pastor Bill Owens of the Coalition of African-American Pastors. Another, Pastor Ken Hutcherson of Seattle, Wash., hosted the May Day for Marriage, which brought nearly 300,000 people to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Bishop Eddie Long of Atlanta convened a "Reignite the Legacy March," which assembled nearly 30,000 attendees. Finally, Bishop Wellington Boone, also of Atlanta, traveled with James Dobson of Focus on the Family to six different locations, addressing audiences of nearly 40,000 people. These black leaders rose up simultaneously to call America to moral accountability.
Now that a new generation of black leaders is emerging, we need one more ingredient to begin to catapult America forward morally - a Contract with Black America on Moral Values. This new contract should offer a cure for major social ills, especially in urban America, while involving biblical justice. It will also serve as a guide for the entire American community - Asian, black, white, and Hispanic. I believe Martin Luther King Jr. would agree with the elements of this contract. Why? Because King always returned to his Bible for wisdom and direction. Don't let King's dream die. Live the legacy.
Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr. is a national evangelical Christian leader and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church (www.thehopeconnection.org) in Washington, D.C., and the co-author of "High-Impact African-American Churches" with George Barna. Rev. Jackson is also chairman of the new national nonprofit organization High-Impact Leadership Coalition (www.himpactus.com), which is currently educating the nation regarding moral value issues in key urban areas across America.
Harry R. Jackson