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Dr. King’s legacy of courage still beckons Christians to stand

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington DC.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington DC. | The Christian Post/ Nicole Alcindor

The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was — quite literally — a dream come true for me.

I was only five years old at the time, living in the poorest part of Shreveport, Louisiana, one of six children being raised by a single mother. But I was already dreaming of being a firefighter when I grew up. And that wasn’t even a possibility, in the then-all-white Shreveport Fire Department.

But that new law allowed me to become part of the first generation of “Dream Kids” … the ones Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of a year earlier in his famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Like so much of what he wrote and said, his words that day challenged the people of America to be true to their nation’s founding principles of freedom and equality, and challenged people of faith to stand for God’s truth.

Most famously, he called for a new birth of freedom for a new generation, in which people would “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

It took a federal lawsuit to accomplish that in the Shreveport Fire Department, but in 1972 the city hired its first black firefighter. Nine years later, they hired me. A child of poverty, raised on my mother’s Christian faith and unwavering patriotism, I went on to become the fire chief of that city, and later to serve as U.S. fire administrator under President Barack Obama.

While serving as fire chief of Atlanta, I came under investigation for sharing my personal beliefs in a book I wrote for Christian men, on my own time. One of those beliefs is that sex should be reserved for marriage, and that marriage is intended to be between one man and one woman. For expressing that belief — shared for thousands of years by millions all over the world — I was fired.

Nine years ago this week, Christian leaders stood alongside me at a rally in support of my character and my religious freedom. I will never cease to be grateful for their support and encouragement. In recent years, I’ve thought often of what they did, as I’ve watched so many other Christian leaders and churches retreat into silence in the face of growing persecution, racial turmoil, and social upheaval.

I don’t have to imagine what Dr. King would think, watching Christians stand quietly by as so many all over our country today ignite riots, reject the principles of our faith, and denigrate the values of our Constitution. He spoke and wrote with almost prophetic insight — gauging the spirit of his own time in terms that remain painfully true in our own.

Three months before that great speech in D.C., Dr. King sat in the Birmingham jail, writing these words:

“I see the Church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

“So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice, with an uncertain sound … an arch-defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent — and often even vocal — sanction of things as they are.

“If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the 20th century.”

Dr. King understood all too well that for Christians to give any effective witness in this world — for us to make any real and lasting difference — we must be willing to sacrifice. Sacrifice our time. Our comfort. And the artificial “peace” that comes with trying to hide from or get along with the forces of evil.

As one who has personally experienced the pain of persecution, I have learned that worldly consequences are unavoidable when we challenge a hostile culture. But God prepares us for what’s coming and uses our faithfulness to show opponents of freedom — and ourselves — a side of Himself that they otherwise would never see.

What’s more, He honors and rewards those who find the courage to stand.

Dr. King understood all too well the risks of challenging an unjust culture. But he also knew, as he said in a speech in Selma in 1965, that:

“A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right … when he refuses to stand up for justice … when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.”

So many Christians today are dying inside and don’t even know it. It’s my prayer that, as we move into what will likely be a contentious year for our country, believers will find the courage Dr. King found, in the faith he held fast to … and learn to live out God’s truth and justice once again.

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Kelvin Cochran is a senior fellow and vice president at Alliance Defending Freedom (@ADFLegal).

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