The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial will be dedicated Sunday in Washington. It will be the first monument on the National Mall to honor a non-president.
What is Dr. King’s religious and spiritual legacy? How did his ministry influence your own?
When I think of Dr. King’s legacy, I think immediately of Herbert Parson. Herbert and his wife Margaret attend the congregation where I preach. He’s the only individual I personally know who has been in the White House at the invitation of the President.
At the end of last April, Herbert was pictured as one of eight African American men standing in the White House with President Barak Obama.[i] President Obama told these men, “If it weren’t for you, I might not be President.” The President was referring to the fact that he was the first African American President and that he owed these men a debt for making that possible. The President then thanked these men for changing not just his life, but the life of America.
Who is Herbert? Where are his colleagues? They were part of the 1,300 Memphis sanitation workers whose 1968 strike, wrote U. S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, “inspire[ed] a movement to help end the era of Jim Crow and de facto segregation.”[ii] Herbert was nineteen years old when he joined his coworkers’ protest against low pay, poor working conditions and safety issues. In that time in Memphis, sanitation workers were treated like dogs. According to Herbert, they were called “buzzards.” They were the nobodies of the day. But in February 1968, Herbert and others made a stand. They marched in the streets. They confronted City Hall. And Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—Baptist minister, civil rights leader and winner of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize—joined them.[iii] He led a protest in Memphis on March 28 with 5,000 people. Herbert remembers meeting Dr. King and the inspiration King gave to him and his fellow workers. The U.S. Secretary of Labor wrote that “The 63-day strike marked an important turning point in the fight for civil rights and workplace equality across America.”[iv]
Herbert and his coworkers had no power, no voice, and no great influence. Yet inspired by Dr. King, they did what little they could. And through them, a nation’s entire culture was changed. These ordinary people would wind up in the White House with the President thanking them for their tremendous impact.
Herbert’s story reminds me that God does his greatest work through everyday people doing the little they can. We might think that it’s only the Presidents and Governors and CEO’s and celebrities who get things done in this world. It’s not. It’s the children, the teenagers, the college student, the single man or woman, the mother of two, the father of four, the secretary, the janitor, the cashier, and the intern. It’s the sanitation workers. It’s the people with no names. It’s the people with no power. Those are the ones whom God uses to accomplish his purposes in the world.
There are many ways in which Dr. King was used during his life. But to me, this was one of the most important ways. He was used to help a group of nobodies change the country. He made it possible for Herbert, a nineteen year old “buzzard,” to pave the way for the end of segregation. He made possible Herbert’s long journey from the trash can to the White House.