Years ago, I visited an art museum in Memphis, Tennessee – meandering about until I found an exhibit on the civil rights movement. I still remember how I felt reading about Dr. Martin Luther King’s “kitchen table” experience and how it set me on a path of striving to live with greater purpose. This is a story from his life that many haven’t heard.
In January of 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King struggled for courage to keep up the fight that would later become known as the civil rights movement. After having his life threatened, King went to his kitchen table and had a conversation with God – expressing his doubts as a leader and asking for guidance.
“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…The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid…I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.’
At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.” (Stride Toward Freedom)
The art exhibit featured a kitchen table with a coffee cup humbly displayed along with those words. The table was simply made, but it echoed the holiness of communion – Christ at the table – feeding one who was hungry with something more than physical sustenance – the power to go on.
King’s table experience empowered him to feed others – to share a vision of something much larger than any one life – and to inspire others to fight for that something more. Elsewhere in the exhibit were pictures of lives lost and maimed, exposing the ugliness of humanity’s bent toward oppression. Yet that ugliness was diminished and overshadowed by the power to overcome, and it was that power that dominated my experience.
As I walked through the museum, I read another quote of Dr. King’s – one that is reflected today on the monument in Washington, DC:
“If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.”
I left there thinking about life differently – I felt challenged to live a life that’s not as much concerned over personal welfare as much as leaving the world a better place. If you’ve ever had to clean out someone else’s stuff after they’ve died, you know that it’s not their material leftovers that matter – it’s the other leftovers of their life that count. These may be their ideas, their love, their way of being in community – all things you can’t measure with money. Kind of like crumbs of the soul left behind to feed generations to come. A committed life echoes and informs future generations to make life better – for the whole of creation.
King’s life showed the power of not just letting things lie, but that by taking risk together we can create the beloved community intended by God. There’s still so much to do in the world today – things that need to be discussed and acted upon by people committed to leaving leftovers from their lives that are worthy of consumption.