Every January, Americans start talking about Martin Luther King Jr. Around the annual holiday that commemorates his birthday and on through Black History Month, we pause to reflect on the life and legacy of this civil rights leader. The famous quotes start reappearing, and commentators offer earnest evaluations of the “dream.”
This year will bring additional tributes to King as April marks the 50th anniversary of his assassination, a moment that many consider the end of the most dynamic phase of the civil rights movement.
Americans rightfully remember King and the civil rights leaders who labored before, alongside and after him. But a curious thing has happened in the half-century since his death — those who opposed him now valorize him.
One group of people, in particular, has made an almost complete shift in their conception of King: white evangelicals. They too share quotes and write tributes to King. They celebrate his convictional call in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and quote his line about Sunday morning segregation when championing multiethnic churches.
This year, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and the evangelical network the Gospel Coalition are putting on an event in Memphis in April for the historic anniversary.
Back in 1961, the attitude among many evangelical leaders was much different. That year, King spoke at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the flagship school of the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. Although he was there at the invitation of a professor, powerful Southern Baptists opposed his visit.
As historian Taylor Branch wrote in his biography of King, “Within the church, this simple invitation was a racial and theological heresy, such that churches across the South rescinded their regular donations to the seminary.”
King saw an indissoluble link between the Christian faith and the responsibility to change unjust laws and policies. But his emphasis on the social dimensions of Christianity, especially regarding race relations, angered many white evangelicals in his day.
Some Christians opposed King’s activism because they considered race relations a purely “social” issue and not a spiritual one. They tended to believe that the government should not force people of different races to integrate. Some even thought that segregation was a biblical mandate.
King was raised in the black church, which did not view people’s material condition as wholly separate from their spiritual condition. The message they preached was one of liberation for both soul and body.
His understanding of Christianity demanded a critique of the political order and social action to bring about justice for the poor and marginalized. In an “imaginary letter,” King wrote what he believed the Apostle Paul would have said to the American church if he were alive in 1956.
“I understand that there are Christians among you who try to justify segregation on the basis of the Bible. … Oh my friends, this is blasphemy. This is against everything that the Christian religion stands for,” he wrote. “I must say to you as I have said to so many Christians before, that in Christ ‘there is neither Jew nor Gentile, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.’”
To King and many other Christians, racial justice was core to the biblical message. Racial segregation and the other ills it created — like the wealth gap, unemployment and under-education — were an affront to the image of God in all people. Christians had an obligation to transform the systems and laws that allowed racial inequality to persist.
Many white evangelicals agreed with King’s affirmation of racial equality. They may have believed all people should be treated fairly. They objected to the notion that the government should play a role in bringing about equality and that Christians should concern themselves with material issues rather than simply focusing on conversion.
This difference in approach continues to the present day. In “Divided by Faith,” sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith describe how many white evangelicals emphasize personal salvation and tend to view themselves as individuals rather than members of a race, which affects their view of racial issues overall.
“If we are to focus on individuals only, then justice does not mean working against structures of inequality, but treating individuals as equals, regardless of actual economic and political facts. Equality is spiritually and individually based, not temporally and socially based,” they wrote.
Toward the end of his life, King began connecting racial injustice to economic inequality. When he was assassinated in Memphis, he was there to support the Poor People’s Campaign and gather support for a sanitation workers strike. His prophetic last speech, “I Have Seen the Mountaintop,” connected Christian message of hope in eternity with the duty to relieve suffering in the present.
“It’s all right to talk about long white robes over yonder, in all of its symbolism,” he said, “but ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s all right to talk about streets flowing with milk and honey, but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here and His children who can’t eat three square meals a day.”
“It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee.”
While some may read King’s words as an attack on religious conservatives or on their idea of biblical orthodoxy, he merely exhorted the church to act on its God-given call. He wanted to see people of faith, empowered by their belief in Christ and his example, to fight for the “beloved community.”
His message that God cares for a person’s condition in this life as well as the next resonated with many. By addressing both people’s spiritual and material longings, he helped lead a massive nonviolent movement against racism and economic exploitation.
In a time when hundreds of thousands of immigrants face deportation to unstable and dangerous lands, when Puerto Ricans languish without power months after a devastating hurricane, when prisons overflow with the unjustly incarcerated and when America’s leaders malign entire nations and their people, the liberating message of King, the black church and Christ himself are needed as much now as during the civil rights movement.
We honor King when we refuse to divide the physical and the spiritual and see both the eternal and temporal implications of the Bible.
We honor his legacy by living according to a principle laid out by the prophet Amos, which King often referenced: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Jemar Tisby is president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, where he writes about race, religion and culture. He is the co-host of the Pass The Mic podcast and a PhD student in History at the University of Mississippi. Follow him on Twitter @JemarTisby.