On August 28, 1963, King delivered his most famous address, the “Dream” speech. Back in Birmingham a little over two weeks later, King’s dream turned into a nightmare.
On the morning of September 15, 1963, a group of nearly thirty black children sat in a basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church, awaiting the closing prayers of a sermon entitled “The Love That Forgives.” Upstairs, adult black congregants gathered for the upcoming service. They had seen a lot in their town over the last several months. And what they were about to see confirmed the worst fears of many about the consequences of nonviolence.
The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was at the forefront of the nationally televised civil rights struggles, which included protesters’ encounters with snarling dogs and fire hoses that shot off powerful streams of water that stripped the bark off trees.
By opening their sanctuary to civil rights protesters, church members had made it a target of white terrorists. The evening before the morning service on September 15, a group of Klansmen placed over one hundred sticks of dynamite outside the church building. At about 10:20 a.m., the explosives detonated. The impact of the blast destroyed the rear wall and steps of the structure, and blew out all but one of the stained glass windows. The sole surviving window frame featured a stained glass rendering of Jesus leading children, an image the more poignant since that Sunday had been “Youth Day” at the church. While the frame and structure of the window miraculously survived, the window itself sustained powerful symbolic damage: the face of Jesus had been blown off. In a gruesome parallel, one of the girls had been decapitated by bricks which fell into the basement room where the children had been dressing for the upcoming service.
When King delivered his eulogy for the murdered children late in September 1963, he attempted to fathom God’s purposes behind this act of violence perpetrated by evil men. He explained again how their “unmerited suffering” would be “redemptive.” The girls were the “martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity… They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows.”
King suggested that the explosion that took the head of Jesus and the head of one of the girls also would destroy the career of white politicians who had poisoned their constituents with the stale rhetoric of racism. Moreover, it condemned apathetic or fearful black Southerners who had stayed on the sidelines during the freedom struggle. Comprehending the death of the four girls meant understanding the entire system, the way of life, which had produced those who had murdered them, and a renewed commitment to make the American dream real for those who had never experienced it.
Ordinary black Christians such as those from the 16th Street Baptist Church formed the rank–and–file of the civil rights movement. Black Protestant thinkers and activists deftly combined the social gospel and black church traditions, infused with notions of active resistance to social evil. They sought to harness the means of nonviolent civil disobedience, drawn from Gandhi’s work in India, toward achieving the end of biblical justice in America.
It was King’s genius and the brilliance of his colleagues that took back Jesus from white supremacists. Directly defying the ways Jesus had been tethered to white power in film, law, art, and politics, the civil rights activists moved to render Jesus as a universal savior who cared for all peoples. They then redefined Christ’s service and his suffering. In their hands, he became the first nonviolent protester whose moral strength could overwhelm whites’ social power. In this way, Jesus was a civil rights crusader whose skin color was irrelevant. His actions and ethics put him on the side of freedom and justice. For a season, it seemed as if King and his fellows were winning the struggle over Jesus.
At the same time, movement activists held a conflicted relationship with churches. Whether because of indifference, fear, theological conservatism, or coercion and terrorism, many congregations and denominational institutions avoided involvement. Civil rights organizers gave them plenty of heat for their apparent apathy.
Moreover the Christian-inspired movement’s emphasis on the immorality of segregation and use of nonviolent tactics fell short when forced to confront deeper and more structural inequalities in American society. To those stuck in poverty, the right to eat a hamburger at a lunch counter was not particularly meaningful—they needed economic resources and power more than maxims about moral justice.
As the 1960s progressed, more rhetorically radical leaders emerged. Often, they distrusted black Christian institutions, seeing them as too complicit with larger power structures. Others simply condemned Christianity as the “white man’s religion.” King and his followers appealed to a nation’s sense of Christian morality; critics of King questioned whether Christian morality and nonviolence could address basic questions of power and economic justice.
Those questions remain powerfully present today, after a generation of rising inequality which has impacted black Americans more than any single group. During the Great Recession, African Americans have lost nearly all the ground in terms of economic wealth that had been gained over the last two decades. The economic debacle of rising inequality has hit African American men particularly hard. According to the Economic Policy Institute, which has conducted studies comparing white and black household wealth during the “Great Recession” of 2007-09, average white household wealth declined from $134,280 in 2004 to $97,860 in 2009, a 24% decline. By contrast, the median net worth of black households declined 83%, from $13,450 in 2004 to $2,170 in 2009. The black unemployment rate, meanwhile, has risen from 14.7 % to 16.2%, and the overall percentage of black men working is at its lowest level since 1972, just over 56% (compared to a figure of over 68% for white men, itself a figure much lower than in previous years).
The prophetic tradition of black Christianity remains alive, if embattled. It is impossible to conceive of the civil rights movement without placing black Christianity at its center, for it empowered the rank and file who made the movement move. And when it moved, it was able to demolish the system of legal segregation. The history of black Christianity in America made that transformation possible, even as it frustrated some of the deeper-rooted aims of some activists who sought to address issues of income and wealth inequality as much as the formal legal structures of “civil rights.” That remains the prophetic task of the generation misleadingly labeled as “post-racial.”
Below are three responses to the King holiday from scholars who approach their thinking about King and the prophetic tradition. We begin with Anthea Butler’s reflections on how King’s words mic-check our contemporary discussion (or lack thereof) of race and poverty. Next Kerry Pimblott contemplates the particular genius of MLK, and Ed Blum brings us home with his reflection on MLK and Christ, via U2 and Ronald Reagan.
Mic-checking the Black Church
I wonder what Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. would make of the “black church” in 2012. MLK would certainly be happy that there was an African-American president in the White House. What would pain him is the black church’s lack of a coherent, cohesive critique of the economic erosion from every branch of the US government.
It is easy to forget, on this MLK Day, that towards the end of his life King’s turn toward eradicating poverty and critiquing the Vietnam war were the things that put him at odds not just with the United States government, but with the black community at large. In a speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967, King commented on the economy and how the poor were viewed:
Now we realize that dislocations in the market operations of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. Today the poor are less often dismissed, I hope, from our consciences by being branded as inferior or incompetent.
King’s insights could very well be “mic checked” at any Occupy rally across our nation. They are even more important in this 2012 election, where the Republican candidates, in their desperation to be on top, have not hesitated to play the Willie Horton race card—whether it is Newt Gingrich’s ridiculous racist statement that President Obama is the Food Stamp President, or Rick Santorum’s declaration that he doesn’t “want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money; I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.”
The fact of the matter is, not so much has changed since 1967. African Americans under the first African-American president have watched the bottom fall out of the black middle class. What will the 2012 election change about this situation?
Perhaps it is time for the churches to begin to “mic check” MLK’s words on poverty, in addressing all of our branches of government, in order to bring about Kings’s Beloved Community.
A Peculiar Genius
“The peculiar genius of Martin Luther King,” writes sociologist C. Eric Lincoln, “is that he was able to translate religious fervor into social action.” As those embedded within religious institutions so often testify, shifting the parameters of dialogue—let alone galvanizing support for action—remains a thorny prospect. Yet it was in this process of cultural negotiation, reframing, and, ultimately, mobilization, that Martin Luther King Jr. excelled.
In post-WWII America, King was part of a new generation of Southern black ministers and congregants who played a pivotal role in “refocusing the cultural content” of African-American churches toward a theological framework capable of inspiring and sustaining mass protest.
While blanket characterizations of early twentieth century black churches as heirs to an “otherworldly,” “pie-in-the-sky” gospel are certainly overblown, the idea of the black church as a refuge often translated to an emphasis on survival over organized struggle—the involvement of black churches in the civil rights movement was far from inevitable.
King repackaged dominant theologies and recovered those that were rooted in discourses of reconciliation, justice, and nonviolence. Major civil rights organizations linked this emergent scriptural framework to a movement politics that promoted nonviolent direct-action tactics in service of integrationist aims. This approach proved remarkably successful aiding in the development of a unifying movement culture as well as forging important coalitional ties.
Acknowledging this important but often obscured labor is essential not only to an accurate understanding of past struggles but to the success of futures ones. King’s life teaches us that the movement did not rise spontaneously from the church but that churches had to be actively recruited into the struggle for social justice.
The job is not over.
Edward J. Blum______________
King and the King of Kings
Whenever I consider Martin Luther King Jr., I invariably think of Jesus. Perhaps it’s because King was first and last a minister of the gospel. Perhaps it’s because he so regularly claimed to “bear the cross” during the civil rights years. Perhaps it’s because his followers and colleagues so often associated him with Christ (and Gandhi, for that matter, usually in the same breath). Perhaps it’s because both had powerful fathers and they had to leave their homes to make names for themselves. Or perhaps it’s even because they both had words ascribed to their names that they may not have originated (maybe plagiarism is the highest form of spiritual flattery).
For me, the two were linked long before I could even identify the Preacher King. The year was 1985 and I was eight years old. On the green shag rug of our suburban living room, I danced and sang to the Irish rock band U2’s latest hit “Pride (In the Name of Love).” With time, I came to realize that the line “one man betrayed with a kiss” was a reference to Jesus. It was not until high school that I learned the significance of “April 4”: “Shot rings out in the Memphis sky/ They took your life/ They could not take your pride.” I unknowingly had been honoring King’s life and death for all those years. Thanks to U2, King and Christ had been lodged in the musical memory of this adolescent white kid from New Jersey.
It was only when writing a book on Jesus and race in America that I discovered that the rabbit hole went even deeper. U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)” was originally planned to be a song attacking Ronald Reagan’s conservative agenda for the nation and the world (that pride comes before the fall). And it was only as a scholar that I discovered that it was Reagan who signed into law the bill establishing Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a federal holiday. The web of King’s cultural meaning grew more and more complicated.
King and Christ, via U2 and Reagan, were smashed together in my experience. The pair is unavoidable in modern America because both are used on all sides of nearly every issue. Hippies made Jesus into a shaggy-headed, tan-skinned radical, or as one in the 1960s put it, “truly the Cool One because he took the rap for you and me on the cross.” Similarly, at the end of Clark Johnson’s HBO film Boycott (2001) on the Montgomery bus boycotts of the 1950s, King returns from the dead to twenty-first century America. Still wearing a suit and tie, he speaks with young black men in the city. King is somehow able to reach the disciples of rapper Tupac Shakur. Years later, conservative talk show host Glenn Beck paid tribute to King’s “color blindness” as a model for reclaiming America from evil “progressives.”
As quintessential American symbols wrapped together, King and Christ are malleable and flexible. They are brought into every contest, and perhaps there is no better testimony to King’s importance.
Parts of Paul Harvey’s introduction to this discussion were adapted from his just-published book, Through the Storm, Through the Night: A History of African American Christianity (Rowman and Littlefield, 2011).