What some people don't realize is that King, who did indeed preach against violence, was also a gun owner. It's a part of his life that most people haven't heard about.
People know that in 1955, a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Rosa Parks, refused to give up her place on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., and was arrested. This touched off a yearlong boycott that ultimately ended segregation on public buses in Montgomery and catapulted King to prominence in the civil rights movement.
The boycott also enraged the white officials who ran Montgomery. King urged his followers to love their enemies, even while suffering injustice, insisting that it is better to suffer than to harm others and that love is stronger than hatred. Nonviolence is more powerful than violence, he claimed -- but according to many sources, he still kept a gun in his house, afraid that his family might be attacked.
On Jan. 30, 1956, King was speaking at a church in Montgomery when someone bombed his home. His wife, Coretta, and his daughter Yoki were not hurt, but the bomb shattered their front window and blew a hole in the porch. A huge crowd of their friends gathered outside their house. Some brought pistols and rifles, ready to defend their preacher. But King told them, "If you have weapons, take them home. If you do not have them, please do not seek to get them. . . . We must meet violence with nonviolence."
And then, as Charles Marsh writes in his wonderful book, "The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice from the Civil Rights Movement to Today," King knew he had to get rid of his gun.
Like most conversions, this decision did not come easily or immediately. There are reports that he also applied, unsuccessfully, for a permit to carry a concealed weapon after the bombing. As King often said, at this point in his life, he was not yet entirely committed to nonviolence. But ultimately, he did turn away from firearms.
When I told this tale a few years ago as a children's sermon at a Martin Luther King Memorial Service in Hempstead, one preacher after another objected to my saying that King ever owned a gun.
"But he did," I replied. "Don't you think it shows how King practiced what he preached?" Yes, these pastors said, but you still shouldn't have told it. They didn't want to believe that King had ever been ready to take another life, even though the point of the story was that he gave up his gun -- a decision that, by his own later account, gave him new confidence to lead a massive nonviolent movement for civil rights.
The kids, though, who were the real audience of my sermon, were engrossed. And the custodian at a local Presbyterian church talked about it for months. I think they all grappled with the question of whether they would do the same in similar circumstances.
King was both a prophet and a saint who needs no gilding. Like all saints, he was also a sinner, someone with faults and failings who struggled to practice what he preached. His peccadillos and his pistol do not negate his message or his greatness: They can remind us that he was a real human being and that we flawed creatures can become the beloved community he envisioned.
On his birthday, I think the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would want us to recall not only his sermons and speeches, the bus boycott and the March on Washington, but also his gun and the way he laid it aside. His pistol would not have defended him from the sniper's bullet that killed him, anyway.
King never called for a repeal of the Second Amendment. He had no quarrel with hunters, target shooters or police officers carrying weapons. He did not command his followers to lay down their weapons. But he led by his own example. What he preached was something far more radical than gun control: rejecting violence as a way of righting wrongs, and a willingness to suffer in pursuit of justice.
The Rev. Thomas W. Goodhue is a United Methodist clergyman and the executive director of the Long Island Council of Churches.