Which path will we choose?

By Brian Knox | Published Wednesday, January 18, 2017

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Movements that change the course of history can begin in the smallest of places.

I was struck by that thought as I stood in a small office in the basement of a church in Montgomery, Ala., last summer.

Brian Knox

Brian Knox

A simple wooden desk and chair provided a place for writing sermons. A pastor’s robe hung in the corner. A book shelf and a couple more chairs were the only other items that occupied the room.

Nothing about the room would have indicated the beginning of something monumental had taken place here if you didn’t recognize the young African-American preacher whose picture hung on the wall.

My thoughts returned to that small pastor study Monday on the day our nation pauses each year to remember the man whose fight for equality and social justice began in that small room: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The basement of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was where its pastor – Dr. King – and other black leaders met in December of 1955 to plan the Montgomery Bus Boycott the day after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus, disobeying a city ordinance that stated she had to give up her seat to a white man or woman. King, who was 26, was selected to lead the newly-formed Montgomery Improvement Association that led the protest.

The boycott lasted more than a year, and it ended only after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional.

During that year, Dr. King met with several veteran pacifists and, with their encouragement, adopted Mohandas Gandhi’s guiding principle of nonviolence.

Over the next several years, King would become known nationally and internationally for his nonviolent efforts to push for civil rights across the south until his assassination on April 4, 1968.

As I stood in the sanctuary of what is now called Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, I gazed up to the pulpit at the front, imagining what it must have been like to hear the familiar voice of Dr. King echo among the four walls.

The following day, we traveled to Atlanta and visited the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Site, which includes the neighborhood where Dr. King grew up as well as his final resting place.

As we were walking from the parking area to the visitor center and museum, we were met with a sign with the words of Dr. King etched in stone: “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of selfishness. This is the judgment. Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?”

I later learned that Dr. King had delivered a sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church 59 years ago from the day I was there entitled, “Conquering Self-Centeredness.” That sermon included a similar theme of turning away from selfish desires and seeking to instead find some greater cause than one’s self.

When that sermon was delivered on Aug. 11, 1957, Dr. King had reached celebrity status, and the sermon is interesting in that he admitted to his own struggles with self-centeredness. He talked about how when he spoke to crowds around the nation, people rushed to get his autograph and he was recognized wherever he went.

Dr. King said he prayed that God would help him see himself in his “true perspective” and realize that he had arrived at his place in history because others had helped him get there, including the “50,000 Negroes of Alabama who will never get their names in the papers and in the headline,” he said.

He also offered advice on how to overcome self-centeredness.

“I think one of the best ways to face this problem of self-centeredness is to discover some cause and some purpose, some loyalty outside of yourself and give yourself to that something. The best way to handle it is not to suppress the ego but to extend the ego into objectively meaningful channels,” Dr. King said.

I’m not sure what Dr. King would think about our current culture that values selfies and bashing one another on social media to argue “I’m right, you’re wrong.”

Perhaps we should all listen to Dr. King’s words and hopefully realize that whether our time to make a difference begins in a small basement room or a large penthouse suite, our ultimate success will depend on the choice we make between walking in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of selfishness.

Brian Knox is the Messenger’s special projects manager.

One Response to “Which path will we choose?”

  1. Walt Partin says:

    I enjoyed reading this. I would like to point out one misconception that a lot of folks have about Rosa Parks. She did not sit in the front of the bus. She sat in the colored section and refused to give up her seat to a white man when the white section filled up. She refused to be bullied.


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