With all the wonderful things we remember Dr. King for today, I’d like to talk about a defining moment in his life: the shoes of Martin Luther King Jr.’s childhood.
Atlanta Georgia, Circa 1935
It had been nearly 20 years since the Great Atlanta Fire destroyed nearly 2,000 buildings in the city. Just a few short years prior, Atlanta had suffered its greatest drought on record, and the country was smack dab in the middle of the Great Depression. It was also the early period of Martin Luther King Jr.’s childhood, and a moment that he remembered through his adult years.
A year prior Michael Luther King Sr., pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church had traveled to Germany. At birth, he had named his son after him: Michael Luther King Jr., but after learning more about Martin Luther, he became inspired and changed his own name and the name of his son. They became Martin Luther King, Sr. and Martin Luther King Jr., a foreshadowing of the way the young boy would change the church, the country, and even the world.
Polite, Yet Not
One particular day in Martin Luther King Jr.’s Childhood, not too long after he took his famous moniker, his father took him to buy some shoes in a downtown shoe store. As they walked in, they took the first empty seats they found right at the front of the store. At this time, the country was still deep in segregation where people of color were relegated to the back of the bus, the store, or wherever they might be.
The next thing Dr. King recounted about the incident was a request from a young white clerk: a request polite in tone, but not in substance: “I’ll be happy to wait on you if you’ll just move to those seats in the rear.”
Dr. King recounts the rest of the exchange:
Dad immediately retorted, “There’s nothing wrong with these seats. We’re quite comfortable here.”
“Sorry,” said the clerk, “but you’ll have to move.”
“We’ll either buy shoes sitting here,” my father retorted, “or we won’t buy shoes at all.”
Whereupon he took me by the hand and walked out of the store. This was the first time I had seen Dad so furious. That experience revealed to me at a very early age that my father had not adjusted to the system, and he played a great part in shaping my conscience. I still remember walking down the street beside him as he muttered, “I don’t care how long I have to live with this system, I will never accept it.”
A Defining Moment
This was one of two defining moments that had a “tremendous effect” in Martin Luther King Jr.’s childhood development according to Dr. King himself. They shaped how he understood the world to be and who he would become.
There were three people interacting in the shoe shop that day: the clerk who held the status quo politely, the father who refused to accept the status quo defiantly, and the boy who would use that lesson about the status quo to change the world irrevocably.
We can learn a lot from this moment in Martin Luther King Jr.’s childhood. As we honor Dr. King for his tireless work to make our world better, working to bring equality and justice to those in need of it, what will you do? Will you be inspired in the day and find comfort in the work of Dr. King while maintaining the status quo, or will you take this as a defining moment in your personal development to make a difference?
Will you be like the clerk who simply did his duty politely, regardless of its morality? Will you be like the father would not stand for injustice? Or will you be like Dr. King who fought for justice and changed the world?
What will you do?