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."
When this article was originally published in the March 2, 1998 issue of Christianity Today, Edward Gilbreath was associate editor of New Man magazine. He is now associate editor of Christianity Today.
See today's other articles celebrating Martin Luther King Day:Confessions of a Racist | It wasn't until after Martin Luther King, Jr.'s death that I was struck by the truth of what he lived and preached
Martin Luther King, Jr.: A History | No Christian played a more prominent role in the century's most significant social justice movement than Martin Luther King, Jr.
The March to Montgomery | Christianity Today's coverage of King's historic voting rights march, from our April 9, 1965 issueOther Christianity Today articles by Ed Gilbreath include:
Redeeming Fire | The ambition and avarice of Henry Lyons could save the National Baptists (Nov. 1, 1999)
Why Pat Boone 'Bad' | His controversial mission to interpret pop culture for cranky Christians. (Oct. 4, 1999)
The 'Jackie Robinson' of Evangelism | When Howard Jones broke the race barrier on Billy Graham's platform, he faced rejection from both sides. (Feb. 9, 1998)
Billy Graham Had a Dream | American revivalist preachers have been evangelical Christianity's most visible spokesmen over the centuries. What does their record on race relations show? (Jan. 12, 1998)
A Prophet Out of Harlem | Willing to tell the hard truth, evangelist Tom Skinner inspired a generation of leaders (Sept. 16, 1996)
Copyright © 2000 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.