The words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have echoed in the minds of justice-seeking Americans for more than half a century, and a new book by Dr. Jonathan Chism is further proof that the civil rights icon’s legendary speeches are as vibrant and relevant today as they were in the 1960s.
“30-Day Journey with Martin Luther King Jr.” (Fortress Press) is a concise collection of passages from King’s sermons, speeches, letters and other written works, paired with in-depth analysis by Chism, an assistant professor of history at the University of Houston-Downtown. It is part of a “30-Day” series – each book written by a different author – that includes other spiritual thinkers such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Dorothy Day.
Having had a long personal history within the Black church as well as a fervent interest in the intersection between race and religious activism, Chism says he felt honored and delighted to be chosen to write the book, as Fortress Press contacted several potential authors before selecting him.
Long before Chism was a scholar of civil rights and African American religion, he was compelled to fight against the social injustices brewing in his hometown. Growing up in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, Chism witnessed the widespread poverty and flawed criminal justice system that ensnared people he knew and loved. Turning to God for guidance, he accepted the call to preach at an early age, becoming an ordained minister of the Church of God in Christ at only 14 years old.
Chism would go on to obtain his bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and Ph.D. from Rice University. His doctoral dissertation on the civil rights movement in Memphis became the basis for his first book, “Saints in the Struggle: Church of God in Christ Activists in the Memphis Civil Rights Movement, 1954–1968.” Chism says his love for African American theology grew deeper as he earned his Masters of Divinity degree from Southern Methodist University.
For him, writing “30-Day Journey with Martin Luther King Jr.” was a fitting opportunity to continue his engagement with Black religious history and social activism. As he began assembling the book, it dawned on Chism that he was around the same age as King was at his time of death. He says he underwent a personal reflection of his own as he combed through King’s writings.
“For me, writing the book was a journey,” he says. “I felt transformed as I was putting the reflections together, to really spend some time deeply reflecting on what King said and interpreting it in light of contemporary times and reality.”
Chism hopes that readers will experience an equally fulfilling journey with daily readings of King’s words. He spent several weeks narrowing down his selection of quotes, which he attests was quite a difficult task. The finished product is something he hopes readers will find timely, accessible, and spiritually rejuvenating.
“One of the things that is central to me is King’s reflection on love and how this was a core ethical principle for him,” Chism says. “As a Christian minister, King really emphasized the importance of having faith and drawing on divine inspiration and power to be able to love effectively.”
While the purpose of the book is individual self-reflection and meditation, Chism hopes it can also be part of the grander journey of America toward social justice and equality.
At a time when many evangelical Christians support President Trump and tacitly condone the underlying racism of his policies, Chism says there is a moral reckoning to be done within the Christian community.
“I think this book and King’s words challenge Christians to be authentically Christian. Whether we’re Black Christians [or] White Christians, we have a high standard to uphold and to strive for when it comes to love,” Chism says.
Ultimately, Chism wants to offer a positive yet realistic message about the ongoing fight for social justice: The journey will be long and arduous, but the cause is worth the struggle, dedication, and time necessary to its fulfillment.
“In addition to the Christian community, I was hoping that this work could be inspirational for a new generation of activists,” Chism says. “Hopefully, an activist may read this book and find some encouragement and some fuel to keep fighting for justice.”
“30-Day Journey with Martin Luther King Jr.” will be available for purchase on August 6 through Amazon and other retailers.