Friday, September 30, 2022

Martin Luther King Jr., Christian, Part 1

Christianity seems like a hard sell these days. Some of its most famous (or infamous) salesmen are blowhards, narcissists, charlatans, or criminals. Every week it seems, yet another denomination is rocked by accusations or revelations of terrible misdeeds. Various Christian institutions have tolerated, promoted, or even participated in racism, slavery, antisemitism, war, sexual abuse, and on and on. 

Yet the world has billions of Christians, and its central ideas are well known, often respected. In fact, the Christian faith has animated social reformers through the ages, particularly against slavery and for civil rights: for example, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Most people would agree that Dr. King was nominally a Christian because he was a Baptist Minister. However, some on the left (including me in times past) would ignore his Christian faith as irrelevant while revering him as a kind of secular saint. Some on the right would deny that his faith was genuine or criticize his ideas as un-Christian. I will argue that his Christian faith was genuine, and fundamental to his formation and effectiveness as a civil rights leader.

Who or What Is a Christian? 

Before we get too far, what do I mean by “Christian”? Basically, that would be a follower of Christ, of Jesus’ teachings. Most denominations or individual churches have some kind of statement of beliefs posted on their website. Though Protestants deny that “works” will “save” you, they still look for evidence in a believer’s life. A believer should show evidence of repenting from sins, of spiritual growth, of transformation (“born again” or “a new creation”). Personally, I look for what the Apostle Paul called the “fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance (Galatians 5:22-23).

King: Peacemaker? Troublemaker? Prophet? Martyr? Communist? Christian?

A white Baptist pastor told me that, growing up Baptist, he was taught that Dr. King was a communist. I had been reading Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King’s Epic Challenge to the Church, by Edward Gilbreath, so I copied this and handed it to him on Martin Luther King Day:

A year after the [Montgomery bus] boycott, in 1957, when the evangelist Billy Graham invited King to lead a prayer at his Madison Square Garden crusade, he eagerly asked King how he managed to keep the boycott so peaceful. “Prayer,” said King, simply. “Montgomery was a movement of prayer.” (pp. 48-49)

Graham also asked Dr. King to lead the New York revival group in prayer. As Jemar Tisby puts it:

The differences between King and Graham would become more prominent as the Civil Rights movement continued. Graham spoke of “law and order” as a solution to urban uprisings. He criticized King’s direct action nonviolent tactics and admonished him to work within the established legal and political systems. But in 1957, in front of a crowd of 18,000 New Yorkers who had come to hear about Jesus from this famous evangelist, King espoused his hope for a racially unified tomorrow.

The entire prayer is at Stanford University's Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute: Invocation Delivered at Billy Graham Evangelistic Association Crusade.

(PBS aired a Billy Graham documentary that describes his rise as “pastor to Presidents,” including his infamous inclusion on the Nixon tapes.)

The Calling

The catalyst for Graham’s invitation was the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, which started in December 1955 and ended 385 days later. King had graduated from Morehouse College with a BA in Sociology, Crozer Theological Seminary, and then Boston College with a PhD. In 1953, he married Coretta Scott, and the next year, at age 25, he became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. Shortly after their first child was born, Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her seat to a white man. King was not the initiator of the boycott. He was brought into the movement somewhat hesitantly at first. He had declined to be considered for the local NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) chapter presidency due to his young family, his relative newcomer status, and pastoral responsibilities. Local leaders saw something in him however and chose him to be the president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA).

No other candidates were put forward, and King was asked if he would accept the position. [Ralph] Abernathy, seated beside him, fully expected King to decline. Instead, after a pause, King told his colleagues, “Well, if you think I can render some service, I will,” and accepted the presidency. (Bearing the Cross, p. 22)

Was King called by God? Why would God call a young, even green pastor, for this mission? When God called David, he was the youngest of eight brothers. He was still a youngster when he defeated the giant Goliath. When God chose Israel as His people, it was because they were a small nation, not because they were great. Incidentally, King was 5’7” tall.

Martin Luther King, Jr. in front of a Montgomery bus
after the successful boycott. Courtesy

Nonviolence, Love, and Christianity

King would give his first speech as president of the MIA to a church full of people the same night he was elected:

“First and foremost, we are American citizens. We are not here advocating violence. We have overcome that.… The only weapon that we have… is the weapon of protest… the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right… We must keep God in the forefront. Let us be Christian in all of our action.” The protesters must not hate their white opponents but be guided by Christian love while seeking justice with their demands. “Love is one of the pinnacle parts of the Christian faith. There is another side called justice. And justice is really love in calculation.” But the protest was not simply a matter of convincing the white officials of Montgomery of the justice of the MIA’s cause, King indicated. “Not only are we using the tools of persuasion, but we’ve got to use tools of coercion. Not only is this thing a process of education, but it is also a process of legislation.” Then King closed, reminding the audience to protest courageously but with dignity and Christian love. Rising to their feet, the people applauded heartily. (Bearing the Cross, pp. 23-24)

In March 1956, during the on-going boycott, King was invited to speak at a Brooklyn church. He mentioned Gandhi using passive resistance to break loose from the British Empire. But he said “I have been a keen student of Gandhi for many years. However, this business of passive resistance and nonviolence is the gospel of Jesus. I went to Gandhi through Jesus.” (Bearing the Cross, p. 75)

Hearing Jesus

It is possible to be raised in a faith tradition, attend religious services regularly, even become a minister of that faith, and not truly feel transformed by it. For example, John Wesley, British founder of Methodism, had been an Anglican minister for ten years when he felt his “heart strangely warmed” in 1738 and began his movement. (How to Pray, p. 95)

King was leading the boycott, but after a month and a half, and an arrest on January 26, 1956, he had received death threats to himself and his young family. These events shook the confidence of King, who had just turned 27. Late at night, he prayed alone at his kitchen table:  

"Lord, I'm down here trying to do what's right," he prayed, "but I have nothing left." The voice of Jesus came quietly, King said, but he heard it: "Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world." (Birmingham Revolution, pp. 51-52)

From that point on, King said that he was not afraid to die, that the cause was greater than one man, and could continue without him. In March, King held a press conference after his conviction under an antiboycott statute. Asked if he was afraid, King said:

No, I’m not. My attitude is that this is a great cause… the consequences for my personal life are not particularly important…. And my great prayer is always that God will save me from the paralysis of crippling fear because I think when a person lives with the fear of the consequences for his personal life, he can never do anything in terms of lifting the whole of humanity and solving many of the social problems that we confront. (Bearing the Cross, pp. 75-76)

Just a few nights after his kitchen table prayer, King’s house was bombed. Windows were broken and there was a hole in his concrete porch, but Coretta and his young daughter were unharmed. Martin was at the First Baptist Church, supervising a collection to help pay for gas, oil, and tires for volunteer drivers who were transporting boycotters in lieu of using buses. Coretta called the church and Martin went home. The Police Commissioner, Mayor, and Fire Chief, and several hundred Black onlookers were already there. As the crowd grew larger and angrier, the Police Commissioner assured the crowd they would work to solve the crime, then asked King if he would say something to the crowd. He told them that everyone was all right, and said:

Don’t get your weapons. He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword. Remember that is what God said. We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. Love them and let them know you love them. I did not start this boycott. I was asked by you to serve as your spokesman. I want it to be known the length and breadth of this land that if I am stopped, this movement will not stop. If I am stopped, our work will not stop. For what we are doing is right, what we are doing is just. And God is with us. (Autobiography, p. 80)

The legal actions between the city and the boycotters went all the way to the Supreme Court. Nearly a year after its start, at another large meeting at a church, where many ministers from across the South and beyond attended, King said the real goal was not to defeat the white man, but “to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor and challenge his false sense of superiority.… The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community” where all men would treat each other as brothers and equals. (Bearing the Cross, p. 81)

The Black Church and the SCLC

The boycott was not started by King or directly by the church, but once involved, King and the area Black churches organized it, publicized it, and held frequent meetings at churches with thousands of attendees. From the first meeting with King as MIA president, the leaders asked the attendees to endorse their decisions. The church was the only Black institution with the standing, membership, and leadership skills to lead the movement.

In 1899, W. E. B. DuBois called the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, which was by then over 80 years old:

“by long odds the vastest and most remarkable product of American Negro civilization,” and the Black preacher “the most unique personality developed by the Negro on American soil – a leader, a politician, an orator, a ‘boss,’ and intriguer, an idealist.” The community was generating an original form of leadership that would culminate in Dr. King. (Head and Heart, p. 292)

After the Montgomery bus boycott, the MIA looked ahead to public school integration. Bayard Rustin wanted to use “the Montgomery movement as a basis for a wider civil rights movement across the South.” (Bearing the Cross, p. 84) This movement would confront Jim Crow laws through mass direct non-violent action and voter registration. The new organization would be called the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). King insisted on “Christian” “to emphasize that most of its participants and its potential popular base came from the black church.” (Bearing the Cross, p. 97) The SCLC slogan was “to redeem the soul of America.” (Bearing the Cross, p. 285)

King led a “Pilgrimage” to DC in 1957. “This will not be a political march,” King said. “It will be rooted in deep spiritual faith.” (Bearing the Cross, p. 90)

Continue to Part 2, including Letter from a Birmingham Jail, I Have a Dream, and Moses and the Mountaintop.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Martin Luther King Jr., Christian, Part 2

Want to start at Part 1?

Letter from a Birmingham Jail

The SCLC launched a campaign with the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights in April of 1963. They coordinated marches and sit-ins against segregation in Birmingham. In response, a judge made "parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing" illegal. Having already committed to bailing out jailed protesters and running out of money, King was torn. In a meeting of various leaders, opinions were divided. How can they march and afford more bail money for more arrests? On the other hand, how can they back down now?

Deeply troubled, King told his colleagues he would pray over the decision alone in another room. He left, and the others waited for his return. Thirty minutes later, King reappeared wearing a new pair of blue-denim overalls. The group quieted, and King spoke with firmness. “The path is clear to me. I’ve got to march. I’ve got so many people depending on me. I’ve got to march.” (Bearing the Cross, p. 242)

Likewise, Jesus frequently separated from his disciples to pray.

King was arrested with Abernathy, local leader Fred Shuttlesworth, and others while marching to City Hall. While they were in jail, an open letter from eight local “moderate” white religious leaders was published as a newspaper ad titled “A Call for Unity.” The letter questioned the necessity and timing of the Birmingham civil rights protest. Though the moderates’ letter had been written and planned before the arrest of King and others, the timing of its appearance was unfortunate. King read their letter while he was in jail. He began writing a response in the margins of the newspaper, then on paper brought to him in his jail cell by a sympathetic trustee. Eventually he got paper from his lawyers, and they in turn smuggled it out. His colleagues pieced it together and it was eventually published in various newspapers and magazines around the country.

King's Birmingham mug shot
from April 12, 1963, courtesy  

As the subtitle of Edward Gilbreath’s Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King’s Epic Challenge to the Church suggests, King presented an “epic challenge to the Church” in Birmingham. You may already know Paul wrote some letters (the epistles to the Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians) to churches while in prison or house arrest. Notably, King refers to Paul’s “Macedonian call” in his letter, from Acts 16:9, “And a vision appeared to Paul in the night; There stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia, and help us.” King was referring to the accusation of being outsiders coming to Birmingham unbidden:

I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

King’s response was nearly 1,700 words while the original ad was barely 500. You can read the entire letter in King’s book, Why We Can’t Wait, or online at University of Pennsylvania African Studies Center "Letter from a Birmingham Jail". The Internet Archive has the "Call for Unity" and King's response as a PDF.

King answers many of their objections. Their non-violence:

Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self-purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: "Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?" "Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?"

Unjust laws:

To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.

Civil disobedience:

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.

The “Call for Unity” charged that direct action was “such actions as incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed” to solving Birmingham’s problems. In other words, peaceful demonstrations are bad if they “incite” violence. King responded:

We need emulate neither the "do nothingism" of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle.

The “more excellent way” echoes Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:31, introducing chapter 13, the famous “love” chapter used (somewhat out of context) in so many weddings. (“Though I speak with the tongues of and of angels, and have not love [charity], I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal…”)

The white religious leaders say that “extreme measures” are not “justified.” King responds:

Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." [Matthew 5:44] Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." [Amos 5:24] Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." [Galatians 6:17] …. So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?

King complains about the church in general in its silent support of the status quo, a statement that echoes louder six decades later:

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

King finishes the letter in a more personally conciliatory tone. He was soon released on bail. The campaign itself won minor concessions from the city, but more importantly, demonstrated the viciousness of southern segregation to the rest of the country as it saw televised footage of police dogs and fire hoses used on demonstrators. The audience included President Kennedy, who had also called Coretta King while King was in jail to assure her that the FBI had found King safe, and that he would be calling her soon, which he did.

Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth of Birmingham's bethel Baptist Church, who was jailed with King, said King was the leader of the Birmingham campaign because "God had chosen him to be the spokesman." (Birmingham Revolution, p. 53) Shuttlesworth also said about the Birmingham victory: "Maybe that's why we win, because Dr. King always said that unearned suffering has to be redemptive." (Birmingham Revolution, p. 118)

I Have a Dream

The SCLC, the NAACP, CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and others, despite often differing in opinions on strategy, planned the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. On August 28, 1963, from 200,000 to 300,000 people – far above predictions, and about one-fifth white – crowded around the Lincoln Memorial and the Reflecting Pool, across the Mall to the Washington Monument. They heard music from Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson, a choir, leaders of various religions and organizations, such as Roy Wilkins (NAACP), John Lewis (SNCC), A. Philip Randolph (Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters), Walter Reuther (UAW), James Farmer (CORE), and others; and of course, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Wikipedia has an image of the original program.)

King on the Lincoln Memorial steps, August 28, 1963. 
AP file photo. 

King’s speech started out slowly and lifted off when he went off-script with the “I have a dream” repetition, which he had used before. It is a rhetorical gem, often cited as one the best speeches of the century. From a Christian point of view, he uses the word “brotherhood” three times and the phrase “all God’s children” three times, and ends with “Thank God Almighty, we are free at last” (in the future, when we have “let freedom ring”).

He quotes the Bible from the prophet Amos:   

No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. [Amos 5:24]

The ninth and final “I have a dream” is from the prophet Isaiah:

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. [Isaiah 40:4-5]

You can find the transcript of the speech here: You can find the audio recording here:

Moses and the Mountaintop

Moses has been a key biblical figure in the African-American church and spiritual songs from slavery times onward. In the Bible, Moses led the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt through the wilderness to the Promised Land. (This takes up most of the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.) Slaves who were introduced to Christianity were understandably drawn to this narrative.

The speech King gave the night before his assassination is haunting for anyone to hear, especially its finale. He foreshadows his death seemingly prophetically. However, as we have noted elsewhere, he was always aware of the danger of his mission and had been attacked many times. What struck me after becoming a Christian and reading the Bible, was the parallel to Moses in that same culminating section. Before I discuss that, there other parts of his 43-minute speech that foreshadow his impending death. King opens with a joke about the introduction he got from Ralph Abernathy:

As I listened to Ralph Abernathy and his eloquent and generous introduction and then thought about myself, I wondered who he was talking about. It's always good to have your closest friend and associate to say something good about you. And Ralph Abernathy is the best friend that I have in the world.

That heartfelt response seems almost like a goodbye. King goes on take a rhetorical trip through the history of the world to find the time in which he would most like to live. After considering all of history, he chooses the present time because he sees “God working in this period” even though the world is “all messed up” and the “nation is sick.” He goes on to urge unity and strength, and that “we aren't engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody.” What we are saying, King said, is:

God sent us by here, to say to you that you're not treating his children right. And we've come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment, where God's children are concerned. Now, if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you.

King expounds on the Good Samaritan parable, extending it to the civil rights movement and the Memphis sanitation workers strike (why he is in Memphis):

That's the question before you tonight. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job.” Not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?" The question is not, "If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?" The question is, "If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?" That's the question.

King builds to the speech’s climax as he recalls being stabbed and lists all the things he would have missed had he died then. He then tells the crowd that the airplane he was on that morning had been delayed while they checked the plane and all its baggage (presumably for bombs) because of his presence. The end of the speech does seem like he foresaw his death:

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now because I've been to the mountaintop.

And I don't mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so, I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man!

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!

Moses, after leading the people out of slavery, was not allowed to enter the promised land, only to see it from atop Mount Nebo (Deuteronomy 34). Moses was being punished for an incident in Numbers 20:2-12, where he brought forth water out of a rock (for the second time), but did not follow God’s instructions, and also took credit for doing it, thereby committing disobedience and pride.

But I see some parallels between Dr. King and Moses beyond leading the people out of Egypt and the mountaintop. Moses was born a child of Israel, but was brought up in the house of Pharaoh, who was basically a king. Martin Luther King Jr’s father was the leader of an influential church in Atlanta and could have eventually inherited his position. His father was not happy to see him take on risky leadership positions and dangerous missions. But Martin Jr. went out on his own.

Moses killed an Egyptian and was exiled when God called him into service despite that crime. Martin might not have been an adulterer when he was called into service, but God would know his future.

Moses was reluctant when God told him what he needed to do, but eventually became bold, and would demand that Pharaoh let his people go. Martin did not immediately jump at the chance to lead his people to freedom, but he would eventually argue with presidents.

Moses sinned while getting water from the rock the second time, preventing him from entering the Promised Land. Perhaps adultery prevented King from the same.  

Continue to Part 3, including Theological Journey, Was King a Communist?, Was King a Prophet? 

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Martin Luther King Jr., Christian, Part 3

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Theological Journey

There is much debate, at least in the Twitterverse, about Martin Luther King, Jr’s theological beliefs (and political stance; more on that later). He outlined his theological journey in “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence”, published in the magazine Christian Century, April 13, 1960, which itself was a restatement of chapter 6 of Strive Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (1958). I read it in The Essential Martin Luther King, Jr.: "I Have a Dream" and Other Great Writings, pp. 70-80. The title of the piece tells you that he’s explaining why he espouses nonviolence, but this “pilgrimage” tells us a lot about his theology.

Martin Luther King Jr. at the Stars for Freedom tour benefitting the SCLC,
Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena, photographed by Bob Fitch on October 15, 1967.
From Stanford University Libraries Department of Special Collections and University Archives

King says he was “raised in a rather strict fundamentalistic tradition” so that he was occasionally shocked, but always stimulated, by discovering new doctrines in seminary. He says it knocked him out of his “dogmatic slumber.” He became a “thoroughgoing liberal” due to the “devotion to the search for truth” and reason.

However, he writes “It was mainly the liberal doctrine of man that I began to question. The more I observed the tragedies of history and man’s shameful inclination to choose the low road, the more I came to see the depths and strength of sin. My reading of the works of Reinhold Niebuhr made me aware of the complexity of human motives and the reality of sin on every level of man’s existence. Moreover, I came to recognize the complexity of man’s social involvement and the glaring reality of collective evil.” He also found that “liberalism’s superficial optimism concerning human nature caused it to overlook the fact that reason is darkened by sin.” Reason becomes rationalization. “Reason, devoid of purifying power of faith, can never free itself from distortions and rationalizations.”

He then was drawn to “neo-orthodoxy,” but it was “too pessimistic.” He studied the existentialists, notably Kierkegaard, and found their “understanding of the ‘finite freedom’ of man” to be “one of existentialism’s most lasting contributions.” King writes that “man’s existential situation is a state of estrangement from his essential nature.”

Meanwhile, his concern for racial injustice, especially segregation, drew him towards social ethics. “I had also learned that the inseparable twin of racial injustice is economic injustice. I saw how the systems of segregation ended up in the exploitation of the Negro as well as the poor whites.” He was then influenced by the social gospel. “In the early fifties I read Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis, a book which left an indelible imprint on my thinking.” Though King questioned his optimism of “inevitable progress,” and “felt he came perilously close to identifying the kingdom of God with a particular social and economic system,” he gave “American Protestantism a sense of social responsibility.”

King writes that “any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.” I am reminded of James 2:14-16:

What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?

King also felt that the “turn the other check” philosophy (Matthew 5:39) and the “love your enemies” philosophy (Matthew 5:44) was valid in interpersonal conflict, but not “when racial groups and nations” are in conflict.

Then he came upon Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance. King writes “The whole Gandhian concept of satyagraha (satya is truth which equals love, and graha is force; satyagraha thus means truth-force or love-force). King came to see that “the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.” At the time, King had no plan to use this “weapon,” but a few years later, during the Montgomery bus boycott, “the Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 5-7] and the Gandhian method of nonviolent resistance” returned to him. “Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the method.”

Published in 1958 (after the Montgomery boycott), King finished the article reflecting on his spiritual state. “God has been profoundly real to me in recent months,” he wrote. “God is a living God. In him there is feeling and will, responsive to the deepest yearnings of the human heart: thus God both evokes and answers prayers…. In a dark, confused world, the spirit of God may yet reign supreme.”

Was King a Communist?

The FBI tried to paint him as one, using the fact that one of King’s closest advisors, Stanley Levison, and another SCLC member, Jack O’Dell, were former communists. King himself was never in the Communist Party nor identified as communist. However, he did criticize the Vietnam War as early as 1965, though only “personally,” and not “officially” with the SCLC until 1967. King had “thrown in with the commies” according to one of LBJ’s advisers (Bearing the Cross, p. 554). Many conservatives saw opposition to the war as communist-inspired due to North Vietnam being communist, aided by the USSR. But how could King preach nonviolence to his followers, yet agree with them being sent to kill in Vietnam? On April 4, 1967, he gave his first public antiwar speech:

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government….

I… have to live with my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the Good News was meant for all men—for communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them? (Autobiography, pp. 337-339)

After Montgomery, Selma, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Watts (Los Angeles) riots of 1965, King did turn to economic concerns.

Rustin recalled… “He was absolutely undone, and he looked at me and said, ‘You know, Bayard, I worked to get these people the right to eat hamburgers, and now I’ve got to do something … to help them get the money to buy it.’” (Bearing the Cross, p.439)

King had also been impressed by Sweden’s Democratic Socialist system, and began to think that something like that, or a minimum basic income would be the only way to get economic justice. In 1968, without much outside enthusiasm, he called for a Poor People’s Campaign:

Fretting about detailed demands was not necessary. “I don’t know what Jesus had as his demands other than ‘repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.’ My demand in Washington is ‘repent, America.’” King told his staff that “we live in a sick, neurotic nation,” but the Poor People’s Campaign was based upon “the hope that we can move this sick nation away from at least a level of its sickness.” (Bearing the Cross, p. 593)

The campaign had not begun in earnest when King was assassinated. A few months before that King said they had three demands:

The next morning King met with reporters to announce the demands of the Poor People’s Campaign. An overall goal would be a $30 billion annual appropriation for a comprehensive antipoverty effort, but an “absolute minimum” would be congressional passage of (1) a full-employment commitment, (2) a guaranteed annual income measure, and (3) construction funds for at least 500,000 units of low-cost housing per year. (Bearing the Cross, p. 595-596)

The Bible, Old and New Testaments, are replete with calls to help the poor and needy. I’ll just tag a few samples and give you some links:

Leave gleanings for the poor and stranger: Leviticus 19:10
Receive the poor and stranger: Leviticus 25:35
Defend the poor and fatherless, deliver the needy: Psalm 82:3-4
Give to the poor, the Lord repays: Proverbs 19:17
Woe to those who turn away the needy, poor, widows, and fatherless: Isaiah 10:1-2
Jesus says make feasts for the poor, maimed, and blind: Luke 14:12-14
Jesus says if you feed the hungry, you’ve fed him: Matthew 25:34-40
Believers shared gladly: Acts 2:44-46

Yet, as a Christian, King was opposed to Communism in its oppression of religion. In Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he wrote “If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country's antireligious laws.”

Was King a Prophet?

Who is a prophet? Many would be familiar with some of the Bible prophets, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Jonah (of “whale” fame), Micah, Amos, and so on. Moses, Aaron, and Samuel are also called prophets in the Bible. Elijah and Elisha performed miracles, but many Biblical prophets do not. In the New Testament, John the Baptist, and even Jesus, are called prophets.

How does one qualify as a prophet? In the Bible, it is someone relaying the words of God to people. God has told them what to say, or put his words in their mouth (which saying comes from Jeremiah 1:9). Often these words are “woes” declared against idolatrous Israel. Often the prophets predict doom in the near future or peace in the distant future. How does one prove this? The Lord gives a few standards and warnings in the Bible:

When a prophet speaketh in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him. Deuteronomy 18:22

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. [Jesus in] Matthew 7:15

Some Christian traditions believe that God stopped giving prophecy directly to prophets, and the only valid words of God are in the Bible. They hold that the “prophets” mentioned by Paul in his letters were temporary. They still believe that God can speak through the Holy Spirit to people, but that these words must agree with the Bible, which is “complete.” Others believe that there are modern-day prophets, some of whom can be found on YouTube.

A prophet would also “speak truth to power” in today’s jargon (possibly originating in a Quaker pamphlet by that name). The prophet Nathan confronted King David with his sin of adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah (2 Samuel 12:1-13). The prophet Micaiah, dissenting from the flattering “prophets,” tells King Ahab that he will be defeated in battle because it is the will of the Lord (1 Kings 22:6-40).

King did speak truth to power. He took the cause of civil rights to Vice President Nixon, President Eisenhower, President John F. Kennedy, Attorney-General and future candidate RFK, President Lyndon Johnson, and Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. They didn’t always want to hear what he had to say. The entire Letter from a Birmingham Jail was a challenge to the established white churches.

King’s most famous speech is “I Have a Dream” from the 1963 March on Washington. Prophecies can come in the form of dreams or visions (Joel 2:28). King speaks of a future of peace and even quotes the prophets Isaiah and Amos.

Did King predict the future? As discussed in Moses and the Mountaintop, he seemed to know of his impending death. In 1966, King had this conversation:

King also met with movie producer Abby Mann, whom Harry Belafonte had recommended to film King’s life story. Mann was impressed by how King “seemed to be such an ordinary man,” and he asked King facetiously, “How does the movie end?” King responded, “It ends with me getting killed.” Mann was taken aback. “I looked at him. He was smiling but he wasn’t joking.” (Bearing the Cross, p. 469)

Did King think he was a prophet or at least had some prophetic responsibility? By late 1965, he was already concerned about the Vietnam War, but was trying to keep the SCLC out of the equation. Though he had:

no intention of making SCLC active in any peace effort, his ministerial role placed upon him prophetic as well as priestly responsibilities, King said. One of those prophetic obligations was to declare that “war is obsolete,” and opponents of that view should not confuse his “creative dissent” with disloyalty to the nation. (Bearing the Cross, p. 443)

Earlier in 1965, King had also mentioned that the Vietnam War was “accomplishing nothing” (Bearing the Cross, p. 394). By early 1966, he called the war “unwinnable.” This was well before the 1968 Tet offensive by the Viet Cong and North Vietnam against South Vietnam and their US allies, the subsequent “Cronkite moment,” and LBJ deciding not to run for reelection. (See Did the news media, led by Walter Cronkite, lose the war in Vietnam?).

Garry Wills writes: “Many people in the 1960s claimed that Dr. King had no right to speak out on the war. They wanted to confine him to ‘his’ concerns – to put limits around his citizen activity. Others, in the South, had earlier denied that he could speak legitimately even on civil rights: as a clergyman, they said, he should have confined himself to matters of private morality, not issues of public policy.” Later Wills states that “A modern prophet like Dr. King makes us understand the witness of those who found the ‘Christian state’ ungodly in its blessing of things like slavery.” (Under God, pp. 242, 383)

Continue to Part 4, including Bearing the Cross, Why Did King Die?, What About...?, and Conclusion.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Martin Luther King Jr., Christian, Part 4

Want to start at Part 1?

Bearing the Cross

These three Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes begin Bearing the Cross:

This is the cross that we must bear for the freedom of our people.
—October 26, 1960, Reidsville State Prison, Tattnall County, Georgia

The cross we bear precedes the crown we wear. To be a Christian one must take up his cross, with all of its difficulties and agonizing and tension-packed content and carry it until that very cross leaves its marks upon us and redeems us to that more excellent way which comes only through suffering.
—January 17, 1963, National Conference on Religion & Race, Chicago, Illinois

When I took up the cross, I recognized its meaning.… The cross is something that you bear, and ultimately that you die on.
—May 22, 1967, Penn Community Center, Frogmore, South Carolina

Jesus says in a rebuke to Peter, who has just said that Jesus will not go to Jerusalem and die:

If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:24-26)

In another passage, Jesus says:

He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:37-38)

While still honoring his parents (the fifth commandment), King followed Jesus’ call ahead of family. As far as bearing the cross, King was a Christian.

Why Did King Die?

King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Conspiracy theories aside, if there is a God, why would God allow King to die?

King’s assassination was not the first harmful physical attack he received – beyond rough treatment at the hand of police and counter-protesters. Nor was it the first attempt on his life:

  • In 1957, as already mentioned, a bomb exploded on his front porch during the Montgomery bus boycott.
  • On September 20, 1958, while signing Stride Toward Freedom in New York City, a paranoid schizophrenic Black woman stabbed him in the chest with a letter opener, barely missing his heart. He had to spend a week in hospital after thoracic surgery, and several weeks recuperating at the New York home of a family friend. King said he felt no ill will toward his attacker. (Bearing the Cross, p. 110)
  • In September of 1962, at an annual SCLC convention, a young white Virginia Nazi rushed the podium and punched King in the face. King stood his ground and accepted several blows, speaking calmly to him before the attacker was pulled away. (Bearing the Cross, p. 221)
  • In May of 1963, during the Birmingham campaign, the motel room where he was staying was bombed. Fortunately, he had left for a quick trip to Atlanta and was not there.
  • On May 29, 1964, in St. Augustine, Florida, a cottage that the SCLC had rented for King was shot full of holes. King was not there at the time.
  • On August 5, 1966, King was hit in the head by a brick as an angry white mob pelted marchers in the Marquette Park neighborhood of Chicago, as his group was marching for open housing (that is, desegregation). Some of King's aides had warned him not to go to Chicago. He said he had to. "I have to do this," he said as he tried to steady himself after the stoning, "to expose myself - to bring this hate out into the open.” (The Warmth of Other Suns, p. 389)
  • Bomb threats delayed or cancelled airplane flights, rallies, meetings.
  • He received death threats by phone and mail.

These many attacks and difficulties are reminiscent of the Apostle Paul in the Bible defending his ministry, listing beatings, stoning, prisons, shipwrecks, perils everywhere, and anxiety (2 Cor 11:23-29). King said frequently that he would most likely be killed, but that his life was less important than the cause he championed. The Apostle Paul and many early Christians were martyred.  

Andrew Young was the executive Director of the SCLC, and later became a US Congressman from Georgia, US Ambassador to the UN, and Mayor of Atlanta:

[Young] said “we all expected to die…. You believe in heaven. I’ve never thought death was the end. And Martin prepared us. He used to joke about it, telling me not to worry – if they killed me first, he’d preach me the best eulogy ever.” (Under God, p. 249)

Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” [John 15:13] The apostle John expanded on that, writing “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” [1 John 3:16] Back in Montgomery, at the beginning, King was aware of the risk he was taking stepping into leadership. After JFK was assassinated in 1963, King told Coretta “This is what is going to happen to me. This is such a sick society.” (Bearing the Cross, p. 307)

As early as 1966, King mentioned to friends and colleagues how tired he was and mused about returning to the life of a preacher in a local church. In late 1967, according to singer Joan Baez (who, like Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis, Jr, and others, performed at benefits for civil rights), he said that “he wanted to just be a preacher, and he was sick of it all. And that the Lord called him to be a preacher, and not to do all this stuff, and he wanted to leave it and he was tired.” (Bearing the Cross, p. 578)

Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr., and Joan Baez, at the Stars for Freedom tour benefitting the SCLC, Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena, photographed by Bob Fitch on October 15, 1967. From Stanford University Libraries Department of Special Collections and University Archives. 

In the Bible, Josiah, King of Judah, died before seeing the evil against his people:

Because thine heart was tender, and thou hast humbled thyself before the Lord, when thou heardest what I spake against this place, and against the inhabitants thereof, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and hast rent thy clothes, and wept before me; I also have heard thee, saith the Lord.

Behold therefore, I will gather thee unto thy fathers, and thou shalt be gathered into thy grave in peace; and thine eyes shall not see all the evil which I will bring upon this place. And they brought the king word again. (2 Kings 22:19-20)

King did not have to witness the widespread urban unrest after his death; the Robert F. Kennedy assassination; Richard Nixon win the presidency twice; and the Vietnam War continue seven more years. (In the “mountaintop” speech, he lists all the things he was able to witness.) On the other hand, in the immediate wake of his death, the Memphis sanitation strike was swiftly resolved, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 (Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968) was passed, both likely due in part as a memorial to King.

In April of 1967, while preaching in Chicago, King said:

I don’t want a long funeral. In fact, I don’t even need a eulogy of more than one or two minutes…. I don’t know how long I’ll live, and I’m not concerned about that. But I hope I can live so well that the preacher can get up and say he was faithful. That’s all, that’s enough. That’s the sermon I’d like to hear. “Well done thou good and faithful servant.” [Matthew 25:21] “You’ve been faithful; you’ve been concerned about others.” That’s where I want to go from this point on, the rest of my days. “He who is greatest among you shall be your servant.” [Matthew 23:11] I want to be a servant. I want to be a witness for my Lord, do something for others. (Bearing the Cross, p. 555)

The Greek origin of the term martyr is “witness.” Michael Eric Dyson writes that “martyrdom saved him [King] from becoming a pariah to the white mainstream.” (April 4, 1968, p.54)

Another viewpoint comes from detective fiction novelist George Pelecanos, author of Hard Revolution (2004):

I was eleven years old in 1968. Two months after the riots [in the wake of King’s assassination], I took a bus every day down to my father’s lunch counter, where I worked as a delivery boy. The D.C. Transit passed through parts of town that had been completely destroyed. Some of the people on the bus had lost entire neighborhoods, but clearly they had won something too. I could see it in their posture, style of dress, and attitude.

In Memphis the day after King’s assassination, SCLC member and minister James Bevel preached this in the striking worker’s hall:

There’s a false rumor around that our leader’s dead. Our leader is not dead. Martin Luther King is not our leader. Our leader is the man who led Moses out of Egypt. Our leader is the man who went with Daniel into the lion’s den. Our leader is the man who walked out of the grave on Easter morning. Our leader never sleeps nor slumbers. He cannot be put in jail. He has never lost a war yet. Our leader is still on the case. Our leader is not dead. One of his prophets died. (Under God, p. 205)

What About…?

What had once been gossip and ignored by fans of Dr. King, was allegedly caught on tape by the FBI. What about this adultery? Didn’t that make King a hypocrite, or unworthy of leadership? Anyone familiar with the Bible would know the story King David and his adultery with Bathsheba, and his subsequent arrangement of her husband’s death. These sins were forgiven by God due to David’s repentance and God’s mercy (see Psalm 51), and he kept his throne, though losing their child. Yet we still read David’s Psalms and say he was a “man after God’s own heart.” 

What about King’s alleged plagiarism in his PhD thesis? I say “alleged” because King never got to defend himself from that charge. It was not made at the time, but later, after King’s renown had grown. A 1991 academic inquiry found passages lacking citations but did not recommend rescinding his Doctorate. I would say that his PhD was nice to have, but not essential to King’s mission.   


The two things I learned about King after I became a Christian that opened my heart and mind about his faith were the kitchen table prayer and the deeper meaning of the mountaintop speech. These spurred me to learn more about him. I believe I have demonstrated my two goals:

1. MLK was a genuine Christian:

  • Led by the Holy Spirit: the kitchen table prayer which was answered by God
  • Transformed by the spirit from a green pastor into a courageous leader
  • Bearing his cross: he was willing to sacrifice, even die, for others
  • Loving his enemies, praying for those who despitefully used him

2. His faith was instrumental to his role in the Civil Rights movement:

  • King felt God’s calling to lead this movement, and this gave him strength to persist.
  • His theological journey led him to nonviolence.
  • The Bible gave King guidance, wisdom, examples, and spiritual ammunition.
  • His prophetic calling led him to speak out against segregation, poverty, and war.
Continue to Part 5, including Prequel, Personal Connection, Bibliography, and The End.

Monday, September 26, 2022

Martin Luther King Jr., Christian, Part 5

Want to start at Part 1?


For those who would like more context for the civil rights movement, here is my short history of American racism against Blacks. 

Many conservative Christians believe that the USA is a “Christian nation.” I would debate that. However, if that is the case, slavery, which was allowed in our founding Constitution, must be our original sin. (The genocide against Native Americans is another original sin, for another study.) Even the Emancipation Proclamation was not a complete repentance. It changed the law, but not hearts and minds. The Supreme Court in Plessy v Ferguson decided that “separate but equal” was good enough. Of course, as MLK said, the “separate” was rigidly enforced while the “equal” was rejected. Reconstruction was an attempt to reform the slave states, but it lasted barely a decade. It was followed by KKK terrorism, lynchings, Jim Crow laws enforcing segregation, and other overt racism. “Race riots” (for example: 1866, 1868, 1900 New Orleans; 1906 Atlanta; 1917 East St. Louis; 1919 Chicago; 1921 Tulsa Black Wall Street massacre; 1943 Beaumont, Texas, Detroit, Harlem) happened when Blacks stepped too far out of their proscribed roles and were beaten back. It wasn’t only the South because the North had de facto segregation and racism all along.

Many urban centers did have segregated pockets of Black success. What started the Civil Rights movement as we know it? What prepared the ground for it to grow? Black Americans organized in the face of this hatred. In 1909, the NAACP was formed. Crusaders like Ida B. Wells, accomplished people like W.E.B. Du Bois, and everyday people, pushed against an unjust system that seemed not to budge. FDR issued Executive Order 8802, prohibiting racial discrimination by defense contractors. Eleanor Roosevelt championed Marian Anderson, a Black opera singer who was denied a stage. In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color barrier. In 1948, President Truman gave an order to integrate the Armed Forces (which was not fully implemented until the early 50’s). In 1954, the Brown v. The Board of Education Supreme Court decision overturned “separate but equal” in public schools. The murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 motivated even people outside of the South, and beyond the Black community.

This history set the table for Martin Luther King, Jr and others. He led the people that pushed the system, and they accomplished things, not least of all, awareness, but also the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Fair Housing Act of 1968. But that was over a half century ago. How much has changed since then? Are our schools and neighborhoods any less segregated? Are the votes of Black Americans as important as those of Whites?

A recent New York Times article looked at the “everyday violence” in some Chicago neighborhoods. The poorest neighborhoods have the most shootings and fewest banks. The article includes maps showing the concentration of gun violence. During King’s open housing campaign in Chicago, he stayed in a “slum” building on the west side, in the 1500 block of S. Hamlin. From the article:

Black Americans are also less likely to live in communities with strong institutional support. Exclusionary housing policies and discrimination have pushed Black Americans into segregated neighborhoods. Both governments and the private sector then neglected these neighborhoods, leaving people without good schools, banks, grocery stores and institutions….

Violence can perpetuate disinvestment. Business owners do not want their shops, restaurants, and warehouses in violent neighborhoods. People do not want to live in places where gunshots are fired daily. And governments shift resources away from places that officials deem lost causes. It is a vicious cycle.

Notwithstanding the bibliography here, my two favorite books about Black American history are The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson, and Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, by David W. Blight.

King at the Stars for Freedom tour benefitting the SCLC,
Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena, photographed by Bob Fitch on October 15, 1967.
From Stanford University Libraries Department of Special Collections and University Archives.

Personal Connection

In 1966, when I was six years old, our family of four moved to Washington, DC, so my father could work for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. We had a bumper sticker on our refrigerator which said “I Have a Dream - Martin Luther King, Jr.” We were taught that racism was bad.

At the time of King’s assassination, we were returning from somewhere in Maryland. We were stopped by National Guardsmen at the DC border and asked where we were headed. I didn’t hear the entire conversation from the back seat of the car, but I think they were warning us not to go downtown due to rioting.

When the Montgomery to Memphis King documentary movie came out in 1970, my dad took us to see it at the now-defunct RKO Keith’s theater in downtown DC, blocks from the White House (where Nixon was then residing). 

Forty years later, I became a Christian. I heard King’s final speech with new ears, which prompted me to read Birmingham Revolution. Then, I saw more non-Christians get turned off to the Christian Gospel by bad theology and bad behavior. I considered Christians that I admired who were better ambassadors for Christ. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. seemed the most obvious, so I started here. 


Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, David J. Garrow. Open Road Books, 1986.

Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King, Jr’s Epic Challenge to the Church, Edward Gilbreath. IVP Books, 2013.  

The Essential Martin Luther King, Jr: “I Have a Dream” and Other Great Writings, Martin Luther King, Jr., edited and with a Foreword by Clayborne Carson. Beacon Press, 2013.

The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson. Grand Central Publishing, 2001.

Head and Heart: A History of Christianity in America, Garry Wills. Penguin Books, 2008.

Under God: Religion and American Politics, Garry Wills. Simon & Schuster, 1991.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson. Vintage, 2010.

April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Death and How It Changed America, Michael Eric Dyson. Civitas Books, 2009.

What Did MLK Pray at a Billy Graham Crusade?”, Footnotes by Jemar Tisby.

How to Pray: The Best of John Wesley on Prayer, Barbour Publishing.

“Did the news media, led by Walter Cronkite, lose the war in Vietnam?”, Joel Achenbach. The Washington Post, May 25, 2018

Everyday Violence: We look at where most of America’s gun violence happens”, German Lopez and Ashley Wu. The New York Times, July 8, 2022.

The Sit-in: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show, 2020 documentary streaming on Peacock. Johnny Carson gave hosting duties to Harry Belafonte for a week in February 1968. Martin Luther King, Jr. was among the guests. 

The End.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Salman Rushdie and U2

The attack on Salman Rushdie reminded me of an article he wrote for The Nation magazine in 2001. It was about his involvement with the band U2, and a song that appears only on the UK version of All That You Can’t Leave Behind, and on the soundtrack to the movie The Million Dollar Hotel. The words to “The Ground Beneath Her Feet” were written by Salman Rushdie, who had a fatwa (death sentence) pronounced on him by Iran’s Ayatollah in 1989 because of his book, The Satanic Verses. Read what happened in Rushdie’s own words, which are quite entertaining, at (I copy the article in its entirety below.) The video for the song, which features scenes from The Million Dollar Hotel, is here: Rushdie can be seen in the video in a window from 0:20 to 0:32.

The Ground beneath My Feet
By Salman Rushdie
In the summer of 1986 I was traveling in Nicaragua, working on the book of reportage that was published six months later as The Jaguar Smile. It was the seventh anniversary of the Sandinista revolution, and the war against the US-backed contra forces was intensifying almost daily. I was accompanied by my interpreter, Margarita, an improbably glamorous and high-spirited blonde with more than a passing resemblance to Jayne Mansfield. Our days were filled with evidence of hardship and struggle: the scarcity of produce in the markets of Managua, the bomb crater on a country road where a school bus had been blown up by a contra mine. One morning, however, Margarita seemed unusually excited.
"Bono's coming!" she cried, bright-eyed as any fan, and then added, without any change in vocal inflection or dulling of ocular glitter, "Tell me: Who is Bono?"
In a way, the question was as vivid a demonstration of her country's beleaguered isolation as anything I heard or saw in the frontline villages, the destitute Atlantic Coast bayous or the quake-ravaged city streets. In July 1986, the release of U2's monster album The Joshua Tree was still eight months away, but they were already, after all, the masters of War. Who was Bono? He was the fellow who sang, "I can't believe the news today, I can't close my eyes and make it go away." And Nicaragua was one of the places where the news had become unbelievable, and you couldn't shut your eyes to it, and so of course he was there.
I didn't meet Bono in Nicaragua [in 1986], but he did read The Jaguar Smile. Five years later, when I was involved in some difficulties of my own, my friend the composer Michael Berkeley asked if I wanted to go to a U2 Achtung Baby gig, with its hanging psychedelic Trabants. In those days it was hard for me to go most places, but I said yes and was touched by the enthusiasm with which the request was greeted by U2's people. And so there I was at Earl's Court, standing in the shadows, listening.
Backstage, after the show, I was shown into a mobile home full of sandwiches and children. There were no groupies at U2 gigs; just crèches. Bono came in and was instantly festooned with daughters. My memory of that first chat is that I wanted to talk about music and he was keen to talk politics--Nicaragua, an upcoming protest against unsafe nuclear waste disposal at Sellafield in northern England, his support for me and my work. We didn't spend long together, but we both enjoyed it. Bono was less taken with Michael Berkeley, however. Years afterward he told me he'd felt condescended to by the classical composer. My own view is that there was a misunderstanding--Michael isn't a condescending man, but a high culture/low culture rift had opened, and that was that.
Two years later, when the giant Zooropa tour arrived at Wembley Stadium, Bono called to ask if I'd like to come out on stage. U2 wanted to make a gesture of solidarity, and this was the biggest one they could think of. When I told my then-14-year-old son about the plan, he said, "Just don't sing, Dad. If you sing, I'll have to kill myself." There was no question of my being allowed to sing--U2 aren't stupid people--but I did go out there and feel, for a moment, what it's like to have 80,000 fans cheering you on. The audience at the average book reading is a little smaller. Girls tend not to climb onto their boyfriends' shoulders during them, and stage-diving is discouraged. Even at the very best book readings, there are only one or two supermodels dancing by the mixing desk. Anton Corbijn took a photograph that day for which he persuaded Bono and me to exchange glasses. There I am looking godlike in Bono's wraparound Fly shades, while he peers benignly over my uncool literary specs. There could be no more graphic expression of the difference between our two worlds.
It was inevitable that both U2 and I would be criticized in Britain in bringing these two worlds together. They have been accused of trying to acquire some borrowed intellectual "cred," and I of course am supposedly star-struck. None of this matters very much. I've been crossing frontiers all my life--physical, social, intellectual, artistic borderlines--and I spotted, in Bono and Edge, whom I've come to know better than the others so far, an equal hunger for the new, for whatever nourishes. I think, too, that the band's involvement in religion--as inescapable a subject in Ireland as it is in India--gave us, when we first met, a subject and an enemy (fanaticism) in common.
An association with U2 is good for one's anecdote stock. Some of these anecdotes are risibly apocryphal: A couple of years ago, for example, a front-page Irish press report confidently announced that I had been living in "the folly"--the guest house with a spectacular view of Killiney Bay that stands in the garden of Bono's Dublin home--for four whole years! Apparently I arrived and departed at dead of night in a helicopter that landed on the beach below the house. Other stories that sound apocryphal are unfortunately true. It is true, for example, that I once danced--or, to be precise, pogoed--with Van Morrison in Bono's living room. It is also true that in the small hours of the following morning I was treated to the rough end of the great man's tongue. (Van Morrison has been known to get a little grumpy toward the end of a long evening. It's possible that my pogoing wasn't up to his exacting standards.)
Over the years U2 and I discussed collaborating on various projects. Bono mentioned an idea he had for a stage musical, but my imagination failed to spark. There was another long Dublin night (a bottle of Jameson's was involved) during which the film director Neil Jordan, Bono and I conspired to make a film of my novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories. To my great regret this never came to anything either.
Then, in 1999, I published my novel The Ground beneath Her Feet, in which the Orpheus myth winds through a story set in the world of rock music. Orpheus is the defining myth for singers and writers--for the Greeks, he was the greatest singer as well as the greatest poet--and it was my Orphic tale that finally made possible the collaboration we'd been kicking around.
It happened, like many good things, without being planned. I sent Bono and U2's manager, Paul McGuinness, pre-publication copies of the novel in typescript, hoping they would tell me if the thing worked or not. Bono said afterward that he had been very worried on my behalf, believing that I had taken on an impossible task, and that he began reading the book in the spirit of a "policeman"--that is, to save me from my mistakes. Fortunately, the novel passed the test. Deep inside it is the lyric of what Bono called the novel's "title track," a sad elegy written by the novel's main male character about the woman he loved, who has been swallowed up in an earthquake: a contemporary Orpheus' lament for his lost Eurydice.
Bono called me. "I've written this melody for your words, and I think it might be one of the best things I've done." I was astonished. One of the novel's principal images is that of the permeable frontier between the world of the imagination and the one we inhabit, and here was an imaginary song crossing that frontier. I went to McGuinness's place near Dublin to hear it. Bono took me away from everyone else and played the demo CD to me in his car. Only when he was sure that I liked it--and I liked it right away--did we go back indoors and play it for the assembled company.
There wasn't much after that that one would properly call "collaboration." There was a long afternoon when Daniel Lanois, who was producing the song, brought his guitar and sat down with me to work out the lyrical structure. And there was the Day of the Lost Words, when I was called urgently by a woman from Principle Management, which looks after U2. "They're in the studio and they can't find the lyrics. Could you fax them over?" Otherwise, silence, until the song was ready.
I wasn't expecting it to happen, but I'm proud of it. It's called "The Ground Beneath Her Feet." For U2, too, it was a departure. They haven't often used anyone's lyrics but their own, and they don't usually start with the lyrics; typically, the words come at the very end. But somehow it all worked out. I suggested facetiously that they might consider renaming the band U2+1, or, even better, Me2, but I think they'd heard all those gags before.
There was a long al fresco lunch in Killiney at which the film director Wim Wenders startlingly announced that artists must no longer use irony. Plain speaking, he argued, was necessary now: Communication should be direct, and anything that might create confusion should be eschewed. Irony, in the rock world, has acquired a special meaning. The multimedia self-consciousness of U2's Achtung Baby-Zooropa phase, which simultaneously embraced and debunked the mythology and gobbledygook of rock stardom, capitalism and power, and of which Bono's white-faced, gold-lamé-suited, red-velvet-horned MacPhisto incarnation was the emblem, is what Wenders was criticizing. Characteristically, U2 responded by taking this approach even further, pushing it further than it would bear, in the less-well-received POP-Mart tour. After that, it seems, they took Wenders's advice. The new album, and the Elevation tour, is the spare, impressive result.
There was a lot riding on this album, this tour. If things hadn't gone well it might have been the end of U2. They certainly discussed that possibility, and the album was much delayed as they agonized over it. Extracurricular activities, mainly Bono's, also slowed them down, but since these included getting David Trimble and John Hume to shake hands on a public stage and reducing Jesse Helms--Jesse Helms!--to tears, winning his support for the campaign against Third World debt, it's hard to argue that these were self-indulgent irrelevances. At any event, All That You Can't Leave Behind turned out to be a strong album, a renewal of creative force and, as Bono put it, there's a lot of good will flowing toward the band right now.
I've seen them three times this year: in the "secret" pre-tour gig in London's little Astoria Theatre and then twice in America, in San Diego and Anaheim. They've come down out of the giant stadiums to play arena-sized venues that seem tiny after the gigantism of their recent past. The act has been stripped bare; essentially, it's just the four of them out there, playing their instruments and singing their songs. For a person of my age, who remembers when rock music was always like this, the show feels simultaneously nostalgic and innovative. In the age of choreographed, instrumentless little-boy and little-girl bands (yes, I know the Supremes didn't play guitars, but they were the Supremes!) it's exhilarating to watch a great, grown-up quartet do the fine, simple things so well. Direct communication, as Wim Wenders said. It works.
And they're playing my song.
Salman Rushdie