January 27, 1956 is a significant date in the life and ministry of Martin Luther King, Jr. Just after midnight, he had a transforming spiritual experience that set the tone for the rest of his time as a leader of the civil rights movement. It was during the early days of the Montgomery bus boycott, and Dr. King was regularly receiving threatening phone calls at this home. On this particular night, one such call triggered a spiritual crisis that he later described in a sermon titled “Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool.” Here are some of his words describing that fateful night:
And immediately the telephone started ringing and I picked it up. On the other end was an ugly voice. That voice said to me, in substance, "Nigger, we are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow up your house."
Dr. King goes on to tell how he prayed to God at that moment of fear and weakness.
And I bowed down over that cup of coffee—I never will forget it. And oh yes, I prayed a prayer and I prayed out loud that night. I said, "Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right; I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now; I’m faltering; I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.".
What followed was a transforming spiritual experience in which God provided the assurance necessary for Dr. King to go on and endure the opposition and even violent resistance that he encountered not only in Montgomery but constantly over the next twelve years until his assassination in 1968:
And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, "Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world." And I’ll tell you, I’ve seen the lightning flash. I’ve heard the thunder roll. I felt sin- breakers dashing, trying to conquer my soul. But I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No, never alone. No, never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. And I’m going on in believing in him.
January 27, 1956 may not be a very widely known time in Dr. King’s life especially when compared to milestones such as the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act or the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Yet January 27 was the foundation for these milestones. It reminds me that our spiritual formation is at the heart of following God’s call to racial justice so that we know and claim God’s promise to always be with us and never leave us alone.
The video below is the audio of Dr. King’s sermon “Why Jesus Calls a Man a Fool.”