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