As one of only two Negroes attending Los Angeles Baptist College (now Master's College), Dolphus Weary was having the time of his life experiencing a new world of white faces and middle-class culture. Born and raised in rural Mississippi, Weary had assumed he would spend the rest of his life there—until a recruiting team offered him and a friend a chance to attend a Christian liberal arts college in southern California. Other Christian schools that Weary had been interested in refused admission to Negroes. But through the urging of a bold admissions director and an ambitious basketball coach, this ultraconservative institution agreed to make Weary and his friend the first blacks who attended in its 30-year history.
Weary earned above-average grades (knowing anything less would be unacceptable) and helped lead the school's basketball team to a 19-and-5 record. Things were good. The poverty and provincialism of Negro life in southern Mississippi were out of sight, out of mind. Weary was glad to have escaped it—that is, until the day's big news made its way across campus.
As Weary left the library on April 4, 1968, a white student approached him and said, "Did you hear? Martin Luther King got shot."
"I remember running to my room, flipping on the radio, and listening to the news report," he recalls. A rifle bullet had ripped into King's neck as he stood on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. The civil-rights leader was rushed to a hospital in serious condition. "I was devastated."
As he sat on his bed holding back the tears, Weary could hear voices down the hall: white students talking about King's shooting. But Weary quickly realized that they were not just talking; they were laughing.
"I couldn't understand what I was hearing," he says. "These Christian kids were glad that Dr. King—my hero—had been shot. I wanted to run out there and confront them." Instead, he steeled his fury and laid prostrate on his bed. Finally, as the newscaster delivered the awful update—"Martin Luther King has died in a Memphis hospital."—Weary could hear the white voices down the hall let out a cheer.
That was 30 years ago. Today Dolphus Weary is the executive director of Mission Mississippi, a Jackson-based community-development ministry that has drawn together black and white Christians throughout the state that King once described as "sweltering with the heat of oppression."
After hearing the white students cheer on that terrible spring day in 1968, reconciliation was the last thing on Weary's mind. "I had to ask God how to respond," he remembers. "It was around the time that H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, and other young militant leaders were starting the Black Power movement, and I was tempted to join them. Laughing at Dr. King's death was just like laughing at me—or at the millions of other blacks for whom King labored."
Deep inside, Weary wanted to hate white people, to separate himself from their prejudice. "But then I remembered the heart of Dr. King—responding to hate with love. The Lord brought to my mind that those students were only playing back the tapes that had been recorded in their heads, and I needed to help change the tape."
Weary resolved to "take every opportunity on that campus to help those young minds think differently." He engaged students and professors in discussions about race. He welcomed them to ask him questions about the Negro experience in the South. He rechanneled his anger into building genuine relationships with his white peers.
"I think that is the way Dr. King would have approached it," he says. "King's heart was to look at the broader picture. The small picture is to be angry. The broader, more prophetic picture is to devote yourself to changing the system and changing minds. That was King's great work: He brought the race issue to the table and put it on the minds of the American people. It was not on our agenda before that. But he came along and told us that we're all created in God's image, and that we ought to start looking at each other as brothers and sisters, especially those of us in the Christian church."
Three decades after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., the race issue is still very much on our minds. Across the nation the news is regularly filled with stories of racial tension and economic disparity between blacks and whites. Divided attitudes on political issues like affirmative action and welfare reform signal abiding strains between the races. A recent Gallup poll found that, by a margin of 76 percent to 49 percent, more whites than blacks believe blacks have equal opportunities for jobs, education, and housing. It also revealed that blacks are twice as likely as whites to favor affirmative action.
Faced with persistent "wake-up calls," the nation is recognizing the widening gulf. President Clinton's Initiative on Race has sought to get the issues "on the table" but has seen only lackluster results so far. Meanwhile, names such as Rodney King and O. J. Simpson have become symbols for America's racial dilemmas.
Despite our national lack of momentum, Martin Luther King's name has entered the national lexicon, evoking idealistic notions of integration, unity, and brotherhood—or, as King used to say, "the beloved community." King's memory stands as a reminder of how far we have journeyed as well as a disturbing beacon of the great distance left to travel.
For the church, King's legacy is as multifarious as the nation he sought to reconcile. While some revere him as a hero and a prophet of peace, others look on him with disdain, a fact that has been magnified by revelations of King's sexual improprieties and lapses in ethical judgment. Nonetheless, the enduring importance of King's life and achievements have led many evangelicals who once dismissed him as a liberal rabble-rouser now to acknowledge the spiritual validity of his social mission.
Robert Graetz was in a tight spot for a white preacher in Montgomery, Alabama. It was 1955, and the Montgomery bus boycott—an unprecedented effort mounted by the Negro community to protest the city's segregated bus system—was in its embryonic stages. The Negroes of Montgomery had long endured the oppression of Jim Crow segregation with relatively few complaints. But with the quiet and unexpected revolt of Rosa Parks, a seamstress who had been arrested when she refused to give up her seat to a white man ("My feet were tired," she later said), the Negro community found itself inspired to take a stand.
As the pastor of the all-Negro Trinity Lutheran Church, Graetz could either remain silent and preserve his privileges as a white man, or forfeit his family's peace and safety by identifying himself with his Negro congregation. Graetz, a lanky, sandy-haired Caucasian, chose to remain faithful to his Negro flock and became the only white publicly active in the boycott. Graetz, now a 69-year-old interim pastor in central Ohio, explains it: "My family and I had to get involved. If we had remained aloof, our effectiveness as spiritual leaders in the black community would have disintegrated."
His involvement with the bus boycott introduced Graetz to Martin Luther King, then 26 years old and pastor of the middle-class Negro congregation at Montgomery's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. "From the first time I met him, I was impressed," says Graetz. "In terms of his intellect, speaking skills, and ability to motivate people, he was at the top all by himself. He had the remarkable ability to inspire everyone in his presence."
Graetz remembers that King and his wife, Coretta, had only been in Montgomery for a year when he was tapped to head up the boycott. According to Graetz, King was recruited partly because of his charismatic leadership skills and partly because of his newness to the community—he hadn't made any enemies yet.
Though the boycott was ultimately a success, it was not easy. As the movement picked up momentum, angry segregationists cracked down on the protesters. King's home and those of other Negro leaders were bombed. Graetz was called a "nigger lover" and was frequently awakened at night by the blast of bombs tossed into his yard.
According to Graetz, the whites of the "Klan mentality" were a minority (others were just indifferent). But those who were racist made it clear that they would do everything possible to keep Negroes in their place. There was an even smaller number of Montgomery's whites who were "neo-abolitionists"—those who did everything possible to change the plight of blacks. "They were not nearly as outspoken," says Graetz, "because as soon as people spoke up, they were fired from their jobs, or their mortgages were foreclosed. Even a rumor that a white businessman was helping black people was enough to put him out of business."
But King and his movement ultimately secured integrated busing in Montgomery, and blacks throughout the South were buoyed by the triumph. Soon King, along with fellow Montgomery pastor Ralph Abernathy and other Negro Christian leaders, formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a national civil-rights organization. "The thing that is often overlooked is that the civil-rights movement was a church movement," observes Graetz. "The leaders were pastors, and the mass meetings were church services, with prayers, hymns, sermons, and offerings."
CHURCH AS CONSCIENCE
The son, grandson, and great-grandson of Atlanta preachers, King was raised under the religious pieties of the black Baptist church. "King came out of a very fundamental, evangelical church," explains H. Malcolm Newton, director of urban studies at Denver Seminary. "They taught the Bible at Ebenezer Baptist Church [in Atlanta]. That was his roots."
King's intellectual curiosity and desire to understand the very unchristian race situation in the South (combined with his education at liberal northern seminaries) compelled him to ask questions that would stretch his theology far beyond fundamentalism. Nonetheless, on a practical level, King's Baptist heritage always shone through. "In the quiet recesses of my heart," he often said, "I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher."
"King talked about love overcoming hate. But
when we were taking part in marches and
demonstrations, it was not love that was
making us do it; it was our desire to win."
—THE LATE SPENCER PERKINS
It was no accident that an effort as socially positive as the civil-rights movement began in the church, says noted New York pastor Suzan Johnson Cook, a member of President Clinton's Racial Advisory Board. "Martin Luther King proved that our faith and our struggle should never be separate. Faith and struggle—when coupled—make us more effective leaders."
"Dr. King taught us that Christianity could be a vigorous voice for conscience in this nation," adds Robert Franklin, president of the Interdenominational Theological Center, an ecumenical coalition of mostly African-American seminaries in Atlanta. "He showed us that the church did not have to marginalize itself. That it could play a major and necessary role in the public square."
In August 1963, King's movement organized its massive March on Washington, the event that begat the legendary "I Have a Dream" speech and represented the pinnacle of his fame. A Nobel Peace Prize came in 1964. And there were rousing legislative victories as well, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
King's political efforts received criticism from white religious leaders from both conservative and liberal circles. His famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" was actually a passionate response to eight "moderate" clergymen in Alabama who saw King's continued use of nonviolent resistance as "unwise" and encouraged him to let the fight for integration continue in the local and federal courts. Unlike those clergymen, King could not fathom a separation between his faith and politics. He wrote:
In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, "Those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern," and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between body and soul, the sacred and the secular.
THE PRICE OF PROTEST
On a steamy July evening in 1967, James Earl Massey's plane touched down at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport. Massey, then the senior pastor of Detroit's Metropolitan Church of God, had been attending a clergy convention when one of the worst urban riots in U.S. history erupted in the Motor City. Incessant gunfire filled the evenings, rocks and bricks bashed downtown windows, storefronts were looted of their goods, flames consumed entire city blocks. When it was over, 43 lives and $50 million in property damage had been the cost.
To get home, Massey had to drive through the riot zone. He made it safely, but the biggest challenge still lay ahead for Massey and other leading Detroit ministers who began working to restore peace to their tortured city. "Our church became an outpost for reaching out to people who had lost their homes to fires or had no food because stores had been destroyed." And Detroit was not alone. Racial uprisings had recently erupted in other cities as well—Los Angeles, Harlem, Cincinnati, and several others.
The urban riots were an ugly symptom of the growing spirit of despair that had gripped the Negroes of many northern cities. "There was a lack of jobs and a growing social dissatisfaction," remembers Massey. "With the rise in automation at factories, there were a lot of layoffs, and blacks were feeling the severity of the pinch far more than others."
Although King's civil-rights endeavors had made strides against racism and Jim Crow in the South, issues like poverty, unemployment, and racial discrimination were raging out of control in the North. As a result, younger members of the broader civil-rights movement grew impatient. Leaders of groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) tossed aside King's "ineffective" nonviolent strategies in favor of more radical "black power" tactics. Malcolm X had been killed in 1965, but the Black Muslim movement continued to win converts in the inner cities. In 1966, SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael vowed never again to "take a beating without hitting back." King, though troubled, understood what drove the militant factions. "The Black Power slogan did not spring full grown from the head of some philosophical Zeus," he said. "It was born from the wounds of despair and disappointment." Nevertheless, black power did not understand King. Massey observes, "King was being looked upon by black militants as an 'Uncle Tom.' "
Massey, now 68, is dean emeritus and professor at large of the Anderson University School of Theology (Ind.) and interim dean of the chapel at Tuskegee University in Alabama. With his neatly trimmed mustache and stately demeanor, Massey was sometimes said to resemble his friend Martin King. He often spent time with King during his trips to Detroit and was aware of his distress and self-doubt over the fragmenting civil-rights scene. Massey points out that, although King remained committed to methods of nonviolence, he was making a clear shift in his rhetoric. "He had moved on to speaking out strongly against poverty and America's participation in the Vietnam War," recalls Massey. "He was, in fact, sounding quite radical."
He wrote in his last book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?: "Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a mass effort to re-educate themselves out of their racial ignorance. … It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn."
Despite his personal struggles, in early 1968 King was working to organize a massive Poor People's Campaign in Washington for both Negroes and whites. In late March, he arrived in Memphis to support a Negro sanitation workers' strike. His popularity had long since waned. fbi director J. Edgar Hoover (and others) fancied him a "Communist," and for many white Americans, Martin Luther King and urban unrest had become synonymous. The anger and hostility he had been encountering at different protest events, particularly in the large cities, began visibly to erode King's spirit. Says Massey, "In the pictures of him marching in Memphis, you can see the grimmest look on his face. He was very tense. And the speech he gave the night before his death reveals how much he was expecting hostility to rise against him."
Dr. King taught us
could be a vigorous
voice for conscience
in this nation.
On the night of April 3, a violent thunderstorm drenched Memphis as a somber-looking Martin Luther King took the stage at the Mason Temple (denominational headquarters of the Church of God in Christ). Despite the furious storm, an enthusiastic crowd of 2,000 people had gathered to hear King deliver what would become his final speech. After an impassioned appeal to the audience to continue the work the movement had begun, King's address concluded on an eerie note. "We've got some difficult days ahead," he preached. "But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop . …Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. … 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."
The next evening the 39-year-old preacher was shot down as he stood on the second-floor balcony of Memphis's Lorraine Motel.
Massey remembers being at a Detroit television studio that night with his church choir to record a local broadcast for the following Sunday. "While we were preparing to tape, the studio announcer called me aside and told me the news. My heart sank. I didn't tell the choir until after the taping, because I knew they'd be too upset to sing. After King's death, something in me just died."
Something died within the Negro community as well. King's assassination sparked riots in 125 cities, which led to 21,270 arrests and 46 deaths.
JUST NOT GETTING IT
In September 1968, five months later, Glen Kehrein, a white senior from Moody Bible Institute, was on a student retreat at the Green Lake Assembly Grounds, an American Baptist camping and convention in central Wisconsin.
Sharing the huge convention grounds with Moody that year were Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, and other leaders from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The SCLC had been turned upside-down since the murder of King, and it was time to pause and take account of the organization's future.
Kehrein was familiar with a few of the SCLC's surviving leaders, but King had intrigued him the most. He had heard about King's reputation as a "Communist" and troublemaker, and Christian leaders had warned him about the dangerous theology contained in King's "social gospel." Kehrein didn't know what to believe. After King's murder, the streets of Chicago had turned into a war zone. The sounds, sights, and aromas of sniper fire, burning buildings, and armed National Guardsmen were fresh in his mind. Even the relationships between black and white students at Moody seemed to carry some underlying strain. "I saw the racial divide vividly in the dorm when King's shooting was announced," Kehrein recalls. "There was a completely different reaction between the blacks and whites. It was not that dissimilar from the conflicting reactions that came after the O. J. Simpson verdict. We definitely were not on the same page."
In Wisconsin, Kehrein wanted to put those disturbing memories out of his head. But he somehow knew they were matters he needed to confront. He was hopeful when his professor announced that Ralph Abernathy had agreed to share a few words with the Moody students, that perhaps King's closest colleague would be able to put some context to his confusion about race in America. "Dr. Abernathy completed his talk and entertained questions from my class. But with all that history in the room, and all that had transpired in the civil-rights movement over the last 10 years, the majority of questions we ended up asking him were about his personal salvation and his understanding of the conservative tenets of evangelical doctrine." Kehrein was stupefied. "Dr. Abernathy was gracious and attempted to accommodate all our questions, but we were clueless. I think our narrow focus said a lot about the evangelical mindset during that era."
Thirty years after the incident at Green Lake, Glen Kehrein is the executive director of Circle Urban Ministries on Chicago's West Side. Through years of ministry in the inner city and committed relationships across racial lines, Kehrein has worked out much of the angst he felt as a Moody student. "I now understand the black community's huge public catharsis of anger and frustration and hopelessness that followed King's assassination," he says. "While I knew the white community's response to King was not a good measure of the man, back then I wasn't astute enough to fully grasp what was going on among African Americans. And I think many white evangelicals have been on a similar journey since King's death."
"White evangelicals were, for the most part, absent during the civil-rights struggle," admits National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) president Don Argue. Since assuming the NAE helm three years ago, Argue, a white Assemblies of God minister, has worked hard to forge relationships between black and white Christians, spearheading joint meetings between his group and the National Black Evangelical Association (NBEA), and assigning blacks to key positions in his organization. But he realizes the road to strong relationships will be a long and delicate one. According to Argue, white evangelicals missed their golden opportunity the first time. "When African Americans had their Moses in the person of Martin Luther King, we were either indifferent or, in some cases, critical and hostile toward what was happening."
Congressman J. C. Watts agrees. "We should have had more evangelical churches willing to be involved in the civil-rights movement during its heyday," says Watts. "Evangelicals should have been involved simply because it was the right thing to do. If there's an injustice against my fellow man, I have an obligation to say it's wrong, not as a politician but as a Christian."
Watts, the only black Republican in Congress (R-Okla.) and an ordained Baptist minister, speaks freely of his affinity for King, which is indicative of the evolution of King's legacy since his death. Today, conservatives from both the political and religious realms talk unashamedly of the positive contributions of the slain civil-rights leader. However, in King's day, his nonviolent resistance and ambiguous theology were considered suspect. Even evangelist Billy Graham, who since 1953 had worked to desegregate his crusades and had recruited Negro evangelist Howard O. Jones to his team in 1957, was reticent to cast his wholehearted support to King's movement. "Some extreme Negro leaders are going too far and too fast," Graham wrote in 1960. "Only the supernatural love of God through changed men can solve this burning question."
But King saw his "social gospel" as a natural outworking of God's "supernatural love." He told Playboy magazine in 1965, "The essence of the Epistles of Paul is that Christians should rejoice at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believe. The projection of a social gospel, in my opinion, is the true witness of a Christian life. … The church once changed society. It was then a thermostat of society. But today I feel that too much of the church is merely a thermometer, which measures rather than molds popular opinion."
In today's hostile climate of clashing ideologies, King would be considered "politically incorrect," says Congressman Watts. "Today people would say to Dr. King, 'No, no, keep your religious beliefs out of politics—remember the separation of church and state.' But everything Dr. King stood for was because of his faith. His faith transcended race and politics."
On the other hand, at least a few Christian thinkers are not convinced of the religious purity of King's public message. According to the late Spencer Perkins, King's theme of nonviolence and love was probably more a matter of pragmatism than faith. "Like Gandhi, King used it as a strategy to win a battle when the power and numbers were not on his side," said Perkins. "King talked about love overcoming hate. But in my own experience, when we were taking part in marches and demonstrations, it was not love that was making us do it; it was our desire to win."
Eugene Rivers, pastor of inner-city Boston's Azusa Christian Community and an outspoken black voice on matters of race in America, believes King's nonviolent methods were outcroppings of the man's political savvy. "King understood that you could not successfully win the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act by appealing to the historical grievances of black people," he says. "So the moral pageantry of the 'beloved community' was tactically the only way to secure those victories."
Dolphus Weary is less cynical about King's motives. For Weary, Martin Luther King was precisely the kind of preacher southern blacks needed. "I used to see many preachers being exploitative of the black community," he says. "They would say stuff like, 'It's OK that you're going into the back door of restaurants. It's OK that you're going to second-class schools. It's OK that you're the last hired and the first fired. Because one day you're going to heaven, and everything will be all right.' But then King came along and said, 'No! You're not a second-class citizen. God is concerned about you right now. Go vote. Go stand up for your rights.' It was what we needed to hear."
White evangelicals should have borne witness to the truth of the gospel by standing with their black brothers and sisters and opposing racist terrorism against black churches, observes Rivers. He adds that conservative evangelicalism can only blame itself for the liberalism in King's theology since in his day blacks were not welcomed at evangelical colleges and seminaries. "White evangelicals blew an opportunity to shape the intellectual and moral development of King and an entire generation of church-based civil-rights leaders," says Rivers.
Despite their tardiness, Kehrein knows evangelicals have matured in their view of King. "For the most part, evangelicals today no longer have the 'social gospel' concern. They have come to see that the gospel must have social implications and have recognized the great contributions of King and other civil-rights pioneers."
Clearly it is a new day among white evangelicals. This decade alone has witnessed groups as diverse as Pentecostals, Southern Baptists, and the Promise Keepers offering public repentance for past racial transgressions. Nonetheless, NAE's Argue believes there remains a persistent inability among white evangelicals to comprehend the race issue.
"Whenever I go to a black Christian gathering, I find that the subject of racism is always on the agenda, and it's near the top. They're not whining or complaining, but they are deeply concerned," explains Argue. "On the other hand, you go to a white meeting and very rarely, if ever, is racism on the agenda. I've come to the conclusion that it's because African Americans deal with racism on an ongoing basis. They have to justify who they are when they cash a check more often than a white person does."
WHAT OF THE DREAM?
In 1963 on a jetliner zooming from Atlanta to Los Angeles, Martin Luther King sat quietly, peering outside from his window seat. He was drinking in the view of the serene Appalachian Mountains below when the plane suddenly bounced and jerked in a fit of turbulence. King looked up from his pillow, flashed a smile at the Time magazine reporter seated beside him and said, "I guess that's Birmingham down below."
Birmingham was turbulent territory then. King called the city the greatest stronghold of Jim Crow in the South.
Today, if King were to fly over Birmingham, he would experience friendlier skies. In a city once governed by white supremacists, there is now an African-American mayor. In the downtown district, not far from where attack dogs and fire hoses once assailed nonviolent protesters, there stands the Civil Rights Institute. Inside this sobering memorial of a not-so-distant America, visitors can review the artifacts of the Birmingham revolution and actually explore the jail cell that housed King during his famous imprisonment.
A few miles northeast of downtown, in a low-income neighborhood near the Birmingham airport, stands a small church building, surrounded by rows of public-housing projects. The sign out front reads: DOERS OF THE WORD CHURCH. And the members of the interracial congregation of 150, on any given day, can be seen side-by-side serving the hungry and homeless from their church-run soup kitchen. On Sunday mornings, the half-black, half-white body of believers celebrates their common bond in Christ during an exuberant, cross-cultural worship service. The little church seems a million protest marches away from the Jim Crow spirit that stifled the community in Martin Luther King's day. According to Arthur Johnson, the African-American senior pastor of Doers of the Word, his church is a testament to the enduring power of King's vision.
"Dr. King's dream of his children 'not being judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character'—we're living that out every day," says Johnson. "Eleven o'clock Sunday morning at Doers of the Word is definitely not 'the most segregated hour in America.' "
So if Martin Luther King's Dream of an integrated and benevolent society is the ideal by which Christians and the nation should measure their progress in race relations, how are we doing?
Johnson's congregation seems to be an exception. Though an increasing number of U.S. congregations have become intentionally cross-cultural, in many ways local churches are America's final frontier of segregated institutions. "The church is segregated now because that's what we like," said Perkins. "In King's era, churches were segregated because whites didn't want to be around blacks. Now it's two-sided. Today we both choose to be separate."
But Rivers doesn't think that is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, Rivers, who regularly raises eyebrows with his unsympathetic views regarding King, argues that King's perspective on integration was too idealistic. He explains: "King's theological and racial liberalism gave inadequate attention to the primacy of culture, tradition, and history. The truth is, both blacks and whites identify with their particular traditions—and that's not wrong. It only becomes wrong when it promotes injustice." For Rivers, the "remarkable irony" is that King never sought to desegregate black churches. "How is it that the apostle of integration never did this?" Rivers asks. "My sense is that he understood that it was not in the best interest of black preachers to surrender their power by desegregating black churches."
Perkins, late son of racial-reconciliation pioneer John Perkins, disagreed with Rivers. "Being segregated is a weakness of the church. Everybody is comfortable being around their own kind. But that type of thinking puts comfort and culture over Christ."
Robert Franklin, of the Interdenominational Theological Center, says he is "cautiously optimistic." However, Franklin thinks the most pressing racial matters lie in the "institutional" domain. "When one looks at the expansion of the black middle class and the ongoing dismantling of racist legislation and customs throughout the culture, we have to acknowledge that we've come a long way in a short period of time," he says. "But when one looks at the disparate economic culture between blacks and whites and at corporate boardrooms where there is a relatively small number of people of color and women, it's clear that we're still lagging."
Rivers is less generous: "Much of the current race-relations discourse, like what happens at Promise Keepers, substitutes fundamentalist hugfests for the kind of deep, substantive dialogue that has a genuine impact on institutional decisions and public policy. Too much of the reconciliation rhetoric of white evangelicals focuses on interpersonal piety without any radically biblical conception of racial justice."
Oberlin College religion professor Albert G. Miller believes the church has a watered-down understanding of King's vision. "I think we are stuck in our image of King at the 1963 March on Washington," he says. "The 'I Have a Dream' King was a kinder, gentler King. There was a more complicated man that evolved after that point who was very frustrated with what he saw with the limited progress of blacks. In his latter days, King was not just protesting for blacks to eat at the lunch counter, but for blacks to have employment at the lunch counter and to own it."
Cheryl Sanders, professor of Christian Ethics at Howard University and senior pastor of Washington's Third Street Church of God, concurs. "The problem with the Dream language is that it draws attention away from the reality of what King was speaking about throughout his life. There's a danger of only seeing him as a dreamer, and if we only see him as a dreamer, we too easily let ourselves off the hook from dealing with the realities that he was dealing with."
Toward the end of his life, King returned to his Baptist theological roots, "stripping himself … of Protestant liberalism's pieties," writes Willy Jennings in BOOKS & CULTURE (March/April 1998), emphasizing the words of Jesus and the coming judgment.
Denver Seminary's Malcolm Newton adds: "King and the other Christians of the civil-rights movement put their lives on the line. Protesting, marching, getting bombed and lynched and thrown into jail hundreds of times for the sake of biblical justice. That's a legacy that King left for us, and the church hasn't grabbed on to it yet."
Still, others are guardedly encouraged. "Compared to where we were, I think we've done very well," says Mission Mississippi's Weary. "People are talking today who haven't talked in a long time. There's still a long way to go, but at least we're talking about it."
In the meantime, away from the din of philosophical debates and unfulfilled hopes, the everyday business of coexisting together must go on. And one senses there might be something to learn from unheralded efforts like Arthur Johnson's Birmingham contingent. Says Johnson: "I know we've still got a lot of issues to work through, but as long as we're pursuing the Dream, I believe God is pleased."
Edward Gilbreath is associate editor of New Man magazine.
Copyright © 1998 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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