It’s important to remember that it was President Ronald Reagan who signed Martin Luther King Jr. Day into a time of remembrance and thanksgiving for his courageous ministry.
We honor not only King, but all who risked their lives so that the promises of the U.S. Constitution would be guaranteed to all Americans. This year, the observance of his birth falls on Monday, Jan. 18.
King, a Baptist preacher, believed in the non-violence teaching of Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. The difficult and dangerous path King chose to follow was a deeply religious one.
He lived the greatest commandment: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
There are many ways our pastors may honor King’s sacrificial life on Sunday, Jan. 17. A good choice is to include one of his favorite songs in services of worship.
According to Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Taylor Branch, King’s last words were to musician Benjamin Branch, who was scheduled to perform that night at an event featuring Rev. King.
When the preacher saw Branch on the pavement below the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, King called down. “Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.” Moments later King was murdered by a rifle shot.
“Take My Hand” is the most famous of the many hymns composed by Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey, the father of Black gospel music. He wrote the song following the death at childbirth of his wife and infant son.
In a taped interview in 1977, Dorsey recalled, “I became very despondent and filled with grief. A few days later I visited with my good friend, Professor (Theodore) Frye. We walked around the campus of Annie Malone’s Poro College and then went into one of the music rooms. I sat down at a piano and began to improvise on the keyboard.
Suddenly, I found myself playing a particular melody that I hadn’t played before that time. (It was an adaptation of George N. Allen’s melody used with the old hymn, Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone?)
“As I played, I began to say, ‘Blessed Lord, blessed Lord, blessed Lord.’ My friend walked over to me and said, ‘Why don’t you make that precious Lord?’ I then began to sing, ‘Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, help me stand.’”
Singer Mahalia Jackson recorded the song (as did Elvis Presley) in the 1950s, bringing it to a national audience. Instead of King hearing the song on that fateful April 1968 evening, though, Ms. Jackson honored his last request when she sang it at King’s funeral service a few days later.
We remember the faith of Rev. King when we hear and believe in the prophetic words, “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, help me stand. I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m lone. Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light. Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.”