On this MLK day, white evangelicals will once more have the choice to go for racial justice

(RNS) – As we have remembered Martin Luther King Jr. and his contributions to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s every January, our memory of him is so blurry that it obscures much of his actual thinking. In a seminal 2005 essay, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall wrote that King “has been endlessly reproduced and selectively quoted, his speeches keeping their majesty and yet losing their political bite”.

Some of the more “radical” elements of King’s message – democratic socialism, ending the Vietnam War, nuclear de-escalation, a campaign by the poor to force the federal government to fight systemic poverty, and support for a plumbing strike in Memphis when he was killed has been.

For many he has become the “quotable king”, and his entire message has been reduced to his dream that his children “will be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

CONNECTED: What Andrew Young taught me how to keep King’s movement going

In the same way, we have tempered in our social memories how strongly many white evangelical Christians – even those considered socially and politically “moderate” – speak out against king.

King saw an indissoluble connection between the Christian faith and the responsibility to change unjust laws and regulations. But his emphasis on the social dimensions of Christianity, particularly in relation to racial relations, angered many white evangelicals at the time. They viewed racial relations as a purely social rather than a spiritual problem and tended to believe that the government should not force people of different races into integration. Some, of course, believed that racial segregation was a divine declaration and used the Bible to defend the practice.

Decades after his death, the white evangelicals finally recognized King’s contribution to American democracy and biblical justice. But during his lifetime, much of the American Church mocked King and other activists and even defied the aims of the civil rights movement.

Evangelist Billy Graham was a good advocate of the moderate white evangelical position. Christian commentators make much of Graham’s gestures of support for black civil rights today, recalling the 1953 evangelistic crusade in Chattanooga, Tennessee, when Graham personally removed the ropes that separated white and black participants. Four years later, he invited King to offer the opening prayer at one of his rallies, an invitation King accepted.

But as the civil rights movement continued and King led more demonstrations, Graham advised King and his allies to “step on the brakes.” Although Graham did more than many of his Christian leaders, he never made bold public statements of solidarity with black citizens and opted not to march with activists on Selma in March, a move Graham later regretted.

Like the white moderates King wrote about in his letter from prison, who paternalistically feel “able to set the schedule for another man’s freedom,” Graham never admitted that “the evangelist is not primarily one A social reformer, a lecturer in temperance or a lecturer is moralizer. He’s just a keryx, a herald of the good news. “

A resident of North Carolina, Graham claimed membership of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, then the largest congregation in the Southern Baptist Convention, and had great respect for the church’s pastor, WA Criswell.

Criswell was a magnetic preacher, but he had a bad view of the civil rights movement and activists like King. When officials invited Criswell to preach at an evangelism conference for the South Carolina Baptist Convention in 1956, he called desegregation “a rejection of everything we believe in.” He went on to say that Brown against Board was “stupidity” and “idiocy” and called anyone who advocated racial integration “a group of infidels who die from their necks”.

Criswell moderated some of his viewpoints later in life, but not before thousands of Christians in his own church and tens of thousands of his followers across the country had taken up his views on civil rights and activists like King.

Over time, efforts to hear King in white evangelical forums have been rejected. In 1961, King spoke at the invitation of a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, SBC’s flagship seminary. Powerful southern Baptists resisted his visit.

As historian Taylor Branch wrote in his biography of King, “Within the Church, this simple invitation was a racist and theological heresy, so churches in the South withdrew their regular donations to the seminary.”

Even when he was assassinated, some white evangelicals viewed King as an agitator whose presence they wanted to get rid of.

In his book “Reconciliation Blues”, writer Edward Gilbreath tells the experience of a black college student named Dolphus Weary at a predominantly white Christian school in the late 1960s. Weary had received an offer to get a place on the basketball team through the persistent efforts of an admissions director.

Tired, who grew up in rural Mississippi, attended Los Angeles Baptist College, now known as The Master’s University. Weary was one of the first two black students at the school, and it was a positive experience at first. He received high marks and led the basketball team to a 19-5 record that season.

On April 4, 1968, a white classmate ran up to Weary and asked if he could hear the news about Dr. King heard. Weary went back to his room and turned on the radio for an update. He was “devastated” when he heard that King had been shot. As he sat in his room, he heard his white colleagues laughing down the hall.

Then came the terrible news that King was dead. As soon as commentators reported the news, the young black boy could “hear white voices in the hallway cheering.”

Reflecting on the experience, Weary said, “Laughing at Dr. King’s death was like laughing at me – or at the millions of other black people King worked for.”

Remarkably, Weary refused to be consumed by the hatred of others. He has spent his life working for Racial Reconciliation in his home state of Mississippi.

The Gospel of John says: “A prophet has no honor in his own country.” We could expand it: A prophet (or fortune teller) has no honor in his time.

If white evangelicals or anyone else wants to learn from MLC’s legacy, they will ask who are today’s prophets of racial justice and are they willing to listen now or will they honor the wisdom of those voices in the wilderness after they die?

(This article is taken from Jemar Tisby’s How To Fight Racism: Bold Christianity and the Road to Racial Justice. Contact him @JemarTisby. The views expressed in this comment do not necessarily reflect those of the Religion News Service.)

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