The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, faith groups rally to combat systemic racism

The "Act to End Racism Rally" took place on April 4 on the National Mall to mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. (Video: Reuters)

On the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder, one of the activist pastors who has tried to follow in his footsteps spoke of the task at hand after half a century.

“We cannot be those who merely love the tombs of the prophets,” said the Rev. William Barber II. “We do not celebrate assassinations and killings of our prophets. We find the place they fell; we reach down in the blood; we pick up the baton and carry it forward. And we must.”

Religious activists — mostly Christian, but some non-Christian — commemorated King’s death in that spirit on Wednesday: with pledges to carry on his work of tackling systemic racism at memorial events in Washington, Memphis, Atlanta and other cities.

In Memphis, the location of King’s assassination, his children Bernice King and Martin Luther King III spoke Tuesday night at Mason Temple Church of God in Christ. “It’s important to see two of the children who lost their daddy 50 years ago to an assassin’s bullet,” said Bernice King, now 55. “But we kept going.”

Listen to “Retropod”:

For more forgotten stories from history, subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Amazon Echo | Google Home and more

Civil rights activists including the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rep. John Lewis were planning to remember King in that city during an event on Wednesday evening. In Atlanta, King’s hometown, bells will ring at his grave site at the moment when he was shot 50 years ago.

As dawn broke at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in D.C., the Rev. Dawn Sanders offered one of the first prayers of the day.

“King’s blood calls out to us. And what are we prepared to do? We thank you, God, for all that will be said and done. But we will not leave here without You pricking our consciousness,” she said.

Hundreds of people had gathered ahead of the daylong event organized by the National Council of Churches, a network of 38 mostly progressive denominations — white and black — as well as several major African American Christian umbrella groups and the largest American Jewish denomination, among others. While they walked the cherry-tree-lined mile from the Memorial to the Mall in prayerful silence, their T-shirts and buttons, posters and banners and clerical garb proclaimed their faith: “Methodists United Against Racism.” “Catholics Against Racism.” “Quakers United Against Racism.” “Do Justice, Love Mercy, March Proudly.” “God’s work. Our hands.” “Do all the good you can.” “Racism is a sin.”

Fifty years after King’s assassination, promise and pain on the avenue that bears his name

During the rally that followed on the National Mall, pastors and actors and activists spoke of specific political issues that people of faith should tackle, from education to environmental justice to incarceration.

It was all in keeping with where King found himself in the years before he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. He had shifted from a focus on achieving legal racial equality toward something broader: Social and economic justice for all. Now after a decade of talk about a “post-racial America” and a focus on interracial dialogue in some quarters of American life, many faith groups said they are returning to where King left off.

The Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of the progressive Christian group Sojourners, preached: “Without confession of the sin of white racism, white supremacy, white privilege, people who call themselves white Christians will never be free.” He said that white Christians must confess the sins of colonialism and racism, “including in the highest levels of power in this capital city.” And he said that confession must lead to action, specifically calling on the crowd to fight voter suppression in the next election. Racism, he said, is more than individual behavior, and repentance is more than saying “you’re sorry.”

Texas megachurch Pastor Frederick Haynes compared the day after the 2016 presidential election to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. That morning, he said, America “woke up to the eclipse of decency, honesty, and integrity. And now we are in the chaotic darkness of racism and military madness and…greed…because we have not responded to Martin Luther King.”

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the founders of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, summarized the ways their lives would have been different if they were black — from the houses their families were able to buy, to the bank loans they received, to the punishments they avoided for crimes like marijuana possession. They concluded that they never would have been able to found their ice cream company. “There is this myth that the government isn’t responsible for wealth disparity and therefore isn’t responsible for fixing it. But we know now, the shape of our world then and now isn’t an accident. They are a result of deliberate government policy. It’s a fact and not debatable,” Cohen said. “The point isn’t that there would be no Cherry Garcia or Chunky Monkey. The point is there are millions of black and brown people who have been screwed.”

‘I Am a Man’: The ugly Memphis sanitation workers’ strike that led to MLK’s assassination

Eric McLauglin, 14, came to the rally with his cousin and his grandmother Sheila Carson Carr, an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in Ward 7. The trio go to many protests and rallies these days. McLaughlin suggested attending this one after he heard a talk in school yesterday about John Lewis and Barack Obama.

McLaughlin said black Americans like his family “aren’t free. People act like we’re slaves.” He and Carr said very recently their family went to an amusement park in Maryland, and one of their young cousins was asked to get off a ride to make room for a white child.

Carr, a third-generation Washingtonian, pointed to the problems that have endured long past King’s death: the supermarkets that leave black city neighborhoods, until they are gentrified. The Congressional leaders who refused from day one to work with the first black president.

But she told her grandson she was not discouraged. “No, oh no!” she said, pointing to Barber and other modern-day leaders who inspire her to keep up the fight.

The Rev. Cindy Crane, director of the Lutheran Office for Public Policy in Wisconsin, rode all night to get here so that she could confront the history of racism in the church. “It’s important to name it,” she said, marching alongside two fellow pastors. “Naming systemic racism, naming it more than once. And we have the need to confess. That is just the beginning of addressing racism now.”

Amy Reumann, director of advocacy for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said as she walked with Crane that churches need to repent for their own systemic racism. “I think we have a collective responsibility to confess our involvement and our complicity. It’s still going on in the church. We see it in our denomination. We see clergy of color waiting longer for positions. They are still battling for acceptance,” she said.

Conservative evangelicals in Memphis are also working to define what ending racism looks like. The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, was shocked that what they expected to be a small April 4 conference drew some 3,500 pastors and lay leaders.

‘That stain of bloodshed’: After King’s assassination, RFK calmed an angry crowd with an unforgettable speech

With about 15 million members, the Southern Baptist Convention is the country’s largest Protestant denomination.

Russell Moore, the commission’s leader, said the group wanted to do a specifically evangelical event “given the silence and/or hostility to civil rights that often came from evangelical churches during the time of King. We want to talk about why that was, and how do we apply the Gospel to questions of racial justice and reconciliation?”

Rondell Treviño, an immigration activist and pastor at an evangelical Presbyterian church in Memphis, described Wednesday’s crowd of Southern Baptists and other evangelicals as about 65 percent white and 30 percent black. Treviño said he was surprised that so many white evangelical leaders who tend to be more conservative theologically participated in the conference with more progressive black leaders.

“They’ve preached more real than I thought they would,” he said. “They have been talking about our white conservative evangelical leaders who have wanted to say, ‘Let the gospel preach for itself.’ That never reconciled with Martin Luther King Jr.’s message, who said we need to talk about gritty issues.”

In his own speech at the event Wednesday, he  argued that King would stand today on the side of DACA recipients, who were brought to the United States as children. “Biblical justice would say they deserve protection and care,” Treviño said.

On the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, Christian groups plan rallies to confront racism

As part of the D.C. anti-racism event, on Thursday morning organizers will train participants on how to lobby their members of Congress. They’ll teach attendees to communicate to elected officials that their constituents care about these issues, and to monitor the officials’ votes to hold them responsible. Their talking points Thursday will focus on systemic issues, including criminal and economic justice, incarceration, education and immigration.

In an interview at the rally, Black Lives Matter leader DeRay Mckesson noted that the church – and universities – was among the only places black people could organize in King’s time, and therefore the civil rights movement was “born out of” those institutions. Today, churches figure less prominently in civil rights organizing; Wednesday’s religious-tinged rally felt in that way like a throwback to 1968.

McKesson described King’s call as a two-part message – moral courage, and systemic change. “The call for moral courage resonates most deeply in the context of God,” he said. “If you believe in God, that comes with this idea of a sense of right and wrong. The call for moral courage just lands differently these days because God isn’t as present in the movement.”

While he was raised in a Baptist church and considers himself Christian, he said his faith “is bigger than church.” He still sees the church as one of the most enduring institutions for organizing people, especially black Americans. And he thinks that King would recognize his own Black Lives Matter movement’s tactics of direct mass action — but “would be in awe of our tools.”

Christian leaders often debate about how to approach fighting racism. Does it center on deepening of interracial relationships? Or should it be about marshaling power to change policies involving criminal justice, educational inequity and other issues? Some black faith leaders won’t even use the word “reconciliation” because they think that over the decades, it has kept the focus on the small, interpersonal level rather than systemic change.

The Rev. Jennifer Harvey, one of the keynote speakers, rejected reconciliation as the old practice of the church. “We must not ask ‘how’ to unity and reconciliation. Our own history makes clear that that’s not the question our brothers and sisters of color have been asking since the mid-’60s,” she said, recounting a litany of specific incidents in which white churches failed to stand up for racial justice. “They’ve been demanding we call ourselves, the church, to repent and repair. They’ve not been asking for more togetherness. They’ve been organizing and insisting on justice.”

Debbie Davis and Carolyn McCarthy listened in the back of the crowd — way over the crowd. The white friends from Milwaukee stood on 10-foot stilts, Davis dressed as Lady Liberty and McCarthy as Lady Justice, their long colored robes whipping in the wind.

Both women work with refugees, McCarthy as a nurse and Davis as a therapist, and both said they wanted to proclaim “American” values in the face of a presidential administration that they feel does not embrace liberty and justice.

Of the fight against racism, 50 years after King, McCarthy said, “It’s a long arc. There has been some progress, but the arc is very long.”

Sarah Pulliam Bailey contributed reporting. This story includes reporting from the Associated Press.

Read more:

Why we need both a national apology and reparations to heal the wounds of racism

What Martin Luther King Jr. would think of Black Lives Matter today