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.

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