MONTGOMERY, Ala. (Christian Examiner) – Sixty years ago, a relatively unknown pastor with a vision and a gift for public speaking led a 13-month-long bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, to protest segregation.
The nonviolent movement resulted in a U.S. Supreme Court decision that segregation on public buses is illegal, and Martin Luther King Jr., who led the mass protest, was propelled to national prominence—especially after international media covered the pastor's jailing because of his beliefs.
But the boycott and King's leadership transcended the desegregation of public buses.
Pastors and Christian leaders today remember those days as a time God used a man to spiritually revitalize a nation.
"Dr. King showed me that words are powerful, capable of changing the course of history and the fate of nations. He also showed me that ministers have a prophetic role in the culture to call people to a standard of righteousness in all dimensions of society, including politics," E.W. Jackson, Sr., told Christian Examiner. He is president of STAND—Staying True to America's National Destiny—and presiding bishop and senior pastor of The Called Church, a nondenominational Christian ministry in Chesapeake, Virginia, and Boston, Massachusetts.
Jackson said Jim Crowe laws in the South—laws which perpetuated racial segregation after the Civil War—were an attempt "to maintain the slave system under a different guise," and that King's biblical and spiritual emphases averted a great calamity while bringing about dramatic change.
"Eventually, it could have exploded into another bloody conflict, perhaps another civil war had not Dr. King led a movement which answered hatred with love, physical force with soul force," Jackson said. "He ultimately won the hearts of the America people and brought us back to our founding principles."
Mark Croston, national director for black church partnerships, a division of LifeWay Christan Resources, a provider of Bible-based curriculum and services, agreed about the fundamental spiritual character of King's efforts to bring about tangible differences in the lives of African Americans.
"I grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, during the time of the Civil Rights movement," Croston told Christian Examiner.
"My Dad was at the March on Washington and my Mom may still have one of the programs from the event. I was a preschooler at the time, so all I really know is from the stories over the years of those who were older," he said. These were people "who prayed, who marched, who went to jail, and who were at times violated," and he is grateful for the change these spiritually centered pioneers led.
"Personally, my education in an Ivy League university, my travels in 32 countries and my careers with two major corporations, my homes in integrated communities might all have been diminished without the work done by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.," he said.
Anthony Dockery, pastor of St. Stephen Baptist Church in LaPuente, California, agrees King broke down barriers, but also is mindful significant challenges still remain.
"As far as a movement forward as a people, exponentially there was far more growth from the 1960s to the '80s or '90s," Dockery told Christian Examiner. "Our growth and strides have slowed significantly. ... There's still enough racism to make things challenging.
"Has it changed? Definitely. Has it improved? Definitely. But has it been eradicated? Definitely not," he observed.
But, he is hopeful.
"Opportunities bring hope, and hope brings dreams," Dockery said.
"God is able, finally, to give us inner resources to confront the trials and difficulties," King said to his congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Sunday, January 1, 1956. "This is about all that religion can guarantee."
"I don't want to fool you this morning," he added. "I cannot say to you that if you have faith in God, you will have no problem, or misfortune, but I can say if you have a proper faith in God he will give you something within which will help you to stand up amid your problems."