What advice would Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have for the nation’s first black president, who is emerging from one of his toughest years yet?
We usually remember King at his soaring moments, fully in command of the Civil Rights Movement, confident and poised. The booming oratory in front of a bank of microphones at the Lincoln Memorial, unveiling fine details of his Dream. The White House meetings with President Johnson, hashing out grand legislative bargains.
But King was not always ascendant. Instead of a clear path from achievement to achievement, his was a journey fraught with political and practical failures, challenging relationships, and spiritual and emotional depressions. At one point, King almost quit the Civil Rights Movement altogether, and the tools that he developed to persist and succeed might serve the President well in the taxing months to come.
It was January 1956, and the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama had been raging for weeks longer than anyone expected. King was the leader of the boycott, and he faced both public opposition from White city leaders, and a private whisper campaign charging that he was not up for the task.
It had been a hellish month. King was arrested for the first time that January for a trumped-up traffic violation, and he spent a fearful few hours in a dirty group cell. He began receiving threatening phone calls at his home, warning that he should pack up Coretta and their young daughter, Yolanda, and leave town—or else. And he couldn’t trust the authorities to protect his family because the Montgomery Police Commissioner had just joined the local chapter of the White Citizens Council, a violently racist offshoot of the Klan.
What’s more, there was a rumor spreading of financial malfeasance in the Movement, with the implication that King was involved. Even members of his own family were begging King to quit his activism and find a less hazardous occupation; his father, Martin Luther King, Sr., drove to Montgomery from Atlanta twice, pleading with him to come home.
All of this brought Martin Luther King, Jr. nearly to his breaking point. As David Garrow describes in his brilliant biography, Bearing the Cross, King said that he had “a terrible sense of guilt” about his leadership of the boycott, and further, “I almost broke down under the continual battering of this argument”—the argument that he was doing more harm to the cause than good.
One late night phone call—on January 27, 1956—sent him over the edge. The caller whispered, “N____, we’re tired of you and your mess now. And if you are not out of this town in three days, we are going to blow your brains out and blow up your house.” King later admitted that after this call, “I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward.”
So what brought him back from the brink? According to the historical record, it appears that three factors helped the young pastor push through this terrible-horrible-no-good-very-bad-month and emerge even stronger than before: a stubborn unwillingness to compromise on his core principles; the electric recharge that he received from the crowds around him; and a simple, even child-like faith.
First, the stubbornness. Over and over again, White officials in Montgomery would present King and his compatriots with a “way out” of the bus boycott situation. They offered half-measures instead of full integration: ten full rows reserved for Blacks in the backs of buses, or entire bus routes that serviced African Americans only, no mixing required.
As tempting as these options sounded in the face of the expensive, difficult boycott, King held firm. Compromise tends to be a slippery slope, and if he had agreed to one of these half-measures, he might have compromised himself out of the Movement altogether. But through this stubbornness his resolve was strengthened, and his mandate remained clear.
In addition, in his lowest moments King became buoyed by the energy of the people he was seeking to help. Every Monday and Thursday evening King would join the boycotters at mass meetings hosted by one of Montgomery’s leading churches—Holt Street Baptist, First Baptist, St. John A.M.E. and others.
These gatherings would swell with weary, dignified Black Montgomerians, their feet sore from walking the routes that buses could not take them. Rev. King would approach the pulpit and deliver powerful sermons about nonviolent protest, loving one’s enemies, and enduring life’s storms.
And no matter how low he was on a given day, the call and response from congregations gave him new life. Before his first address to these meetings, King said he was “possessed by fear” and “obsessed by a feeling of inadequacy.” But after his remarks, he left renewed as the congregation sent him out of the pulpit with a round of applause, “rising to their feet.” It was a crowdsourcing of optimism, a collective strength that he learned to draw from in the most difficult times.
Finally, in his most devastated moments, King found strength in a newfound faith. That night of January 27, after the phone call that threatened his family’s lives, King realized that even though he was a pastor, his own faith was much more brittle than he had imagined.
Growing up in a religious household—King’s father and grandfather were both ministers—he assumed that his faith would be automatically conveyed from generation to generation, like a surname name or a favorite watch. “It was kind of inherited religion,” King said, “and I had never felt an experience with God in the way that you must . . . if you’re going to walk the lonely paths of this life.”
But the rumors and the whispers and the threats forced King to his knees. In a moment of revelation that Friday evening, King felt that he heard the voice of God channeled to him, providing new purpose and security in those dark hours.
King recalled, “at that moment I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’” Even though he was already a preacher, it was the first time he had his own personal, intimate encounter with God. It was an encounter that endowed him with a deep sense of peace and purpose for the journey ahead.
Now, of course, the challenges that President Obama faced in 2013 and faces now are nowhere near those confronted by King in 1956. Instead of Bull Connor and barking dogs and institutionalized racism, President Obama faces unfinished legislative business from immigration to climate change, a healthcare rollout that alternates between peril and promise almost daily, an economy still emerging from the Great Recession, and a recalcitrant Congress determined not to make the resolution to these matters easy. But the same elevator that Martin Luther King rode out of his lowest moments might provide a lift to Obama as well.
Like King, the President may find that as he holds onto his core ideals without compromise—as we saw him do in the government shutdown negotiations—he’ll be buttressed by public support and inner clarity that the purity of principle brings.
And as the President hits the road in 2014 and surrounds himself with those he’s trying to help—Americans who have lost their healthcare, students desperate for an affordable college education, unemployed workers seeking a lifeline—he may find, like King, that the cheers and admonishments from everyday people can provide great fuel for his final years in office.
And just like King, the President might be renewed by his own inner compass, his sense of purpose, his conversations with God. It was these late-night conversations that allowed Martin Luther King to endure murderous phone calls and official intransigence. These same quiet chats with the eternal can be a wellspring for Obama as well, as he considers not just the latest legislative maneuver or political stance, but the lasting meaning of his time on Pennsylvania Avenue.
A great deal can be learned from King’s triumphs, and even more from his failures. There are lessons in these low moments for the President of the United States, and perhaps for each of us as well.
Joshua DuBois is the author of The President’s Devotional: The Daily Readings that Inspired President Obama. He directed the White House faith-based initiative during Obama’s first term. Find him on Twitter: @joshuadubois.