The Humor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Humor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. January 15, 2024

WikiImages/Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, 2024

Today is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Monday holiday. It kind of disturbed me this morning as I sat at home on my day off watching the television, that there was nothing about Dr. King scheduled on any of the channels my Dish plan offers. There were some stations that  advertised Black History programs, but nothing specifically featuring the man to whom this holiday is dedicated, and although, yes, the Iowa caucus is important, I found it very strange that there was nothing honoring Dr. King.

The Man I’ve Read About

So I did some research. What can one say that hasn’t already been said? I can’t claim to be an expert on this individual who changed the face of Civil Rights in the United States, but I find much wisdom in his recorded speeches and writing. 

Some of my favorite quotations that I share with students are:

“Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it” ( A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches).

“Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education” (“The Purpose of Education,” Morehouse College campus newspaper, 1947).

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”(“The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life” sermon at Friendship Baptist Church in Pasadena, CA, February 28, 1960).

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that” (Strength to Love, 1963).

What an extraordinary human being he was! I feel, though, that there is a facet of Dr. King that is very seldom publicized. As he was a devout Christian made in the image of God, I am sure it existed. That facet is humor.

The Word of God tells us that “A joyful heart is good medicine” (Proverbs 17:22a).

The Humor of Dr. King

So I decided to see what I could find about the characteristic of humor in the life of Dr. King, and this is a little of what I discovered:

His wife remembers his humor:

Coretta Scott King described her husband as “playful as a six-year-old,” and states that he “could tell jokes about himself and keep you laughing for hours.” Of course, he had his public persona to maintain, but in private he was quite delightfully human.

Rev. Lewis Baldwin testifies about his humor:

According to Reader’s Digest, in King’s downtime, he was known to love a good joke. “He was the comedian of the Civil Rights Movement,” the Rev. Lewis Baldwin, a Martin Luther King Jr. historian, told CNN. King even tried a brief stint of stand-up comedy after graduating from college. His career as a funnyman was ultimately short-lived, but he was known to crack jokes with pals behind the scenes.

Rep. John Lewis recalls his humor:

“On one occasion, we were riding in a car in Mississippi and we saw this old restaurant — a small hole-in-the-wall,” said the veteran activist. “Martin said we should stop, get arrested — and we would go to jail on a full stomach. We all started to laugh” (Tashara Jones, “Rep. John Lewis remembers MLK’s sense of humor,” June 12, 2017).

Andrew Young recounts a humorous and heartbreaking day:

In an article in Daily News, April 4, 2008, Andrew Young reminisces about Martin Luther King Jr. What he recalls most is not the civil-rights marches the two men led in the 1960s or the impact they had on American history. It’s not even King’s fabled “I Have a Dream” speech.

“What I remember most vividly about Martin,” Young says, “is his sense of humor. He was an incredible, fun-loving, happy young man.”

Young’s most vivid memory is of a motel-room pillow fight between the two just minutes before a deadly shot struck down King at the age of 39.

Looking back … Young – who went on to become mayor of Atlanta, a member of the House of Representatives and ambassador to the United Nations – recalls that the horseplay began after King admonished him for not keeping him informed on developments in a Memphis civil-rights federal-courtroom challenge in which Young had testified.

“And then, very playfully, he threw a pillow at me,” remembers Young, “and he said, `Don’t leave me here in the dark all day long without knowing anything. You need to keep me informed.’

“And so a couple of (members of King’s entourage) threw pillows at me. And I threw the pillows back. And the next thing I know, we were in a pillow fight like a bunch of kids, with me getting the worst of it because everybody was throwing pillows at me!”

The pillow fight was broken up minutes later, shortly before 6 p.m., by a reminder that King and his group were expected at a local preacher’s house for dinner.

Humor On the Tonight Show

On a Tonight Show appearance in 1968, Dr. King offered the following anecdote:

“I flew out of Washington this afternoon, and as soon as we boarded, they notified us that the plane had mechanical difficulties, and that kept us on the ground for an hour. Finally, we took off, and whenever I land after ‘mechanical difficulties,’ I’m always very happy. I don’t want to give you the impression that as a Baptist preacher I don’t have faith in God in the air, it’s just that I’ve had more experience with Him on the ground.”

Remember His Humor

So I offer today, in celebration of this extraordinary minister, writer, and activist, the humor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I’m sure he would agree that “to everything there is a season … a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:1,4). 

I don’t know if he realizes that we celebrate him today, but I’m very confident that he is laughing and dancing, and that in the presence of his Lord, his joy is full.

God bless you. I pray that you have cause to laugh today.

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