Growing up, my small Christian school never took the day off to observe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. In the words of one teacher, it was “just another way that proved Christian schools were superior to public schools.” I have vague recollection of, at least for a couple of years, feeling superior to go to school those Mondays while my public-schooled counterparts had to take the day off.
To that teacher’s credit, I think that belief fed off of the skepticism toward MLK and the Civil Rights movement that existed in her community and subculture.
I’ve come to realize my thinking was wrong. And in general, I’ve come to observe that there is often a skepticism or fear of appreciating Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.
Common Reasons Why We Might Be Afraid
1. Perhaps we’re really afraid to celebrate MLK’s dream, because in order to do so we have to admit we were historically wrong and we don’t hold higher human status or “white privilege” over other ethnic groups, races, or skin colors.
“‘African Americans were the people enslaved. So whites had to make them intellectually inferior to justify enslaving them.’ Because there was slavery, blacks were stigmatized as a race and black skin became a badge of slavery. Because there was slavery, whites made African Americans a pariah people whose avoidance—except on unequal terms—conferred status upon whites. Thus because there was slavery, there was segregation. Ultimately, racism is a vestige of “slavery unwilling to die,” as Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas famously put it in 1968.” (Sundown Towns, page 32)
2. We didn’t suffer ourselves. Therefore, we don’t understand the importance or urgency of what MLK and others like him were pleading for. In an excerpt from his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. shares why he felt compelled to speak out about the atrocities (listing some specifics) that most African Americans of his day were facing:
“Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”
Racial injustice is really a desensitized term now, but it means far more than having to sit in the back of the bus based on your skin color. For the African American, it often meant smashed windows, lynching and beatings, peonage, verbal mockery and cursing, and violence performed on the helpless, often without any criminal action towards white perpetrators.
3. Many people now believe slavery was wrong, but perhaps now we feel that blacks are “bitter,” and should have gotten over their hurt feelings since the Civil War ended nearly 150 years ago.
Speaking specifically of “sundown towns,” towns and cities which made towns off-limits to blacks and were prevalent throughout the United States (particularly from 1890 onward), historian James W. Loewen writes:
“Many people wonder why African Americans have made so little progress, given that 140 years have passed since slavery ended. They do not understand that in some ways, African Americans lived in better and more integrated conditions in the 1870s and 1880s, that residential segregation then grew worse until about 1968, and that it did not start to decrease again until the the 1970s and 1980s, well after the Civil Rights Movement ended. Recovering the memory of the increasing oppression of African Americans during the first half of the twentieth century can deepen our understanding of the role racism has played in our society and continues to play today.”
“Many like to pass it off as a part of the distant (before they were born) past, thus no further energy or thought need be expended on the issue.”
The wrong of white Americans to African Americans extends far beyond the Civil War, and it is becoming more and more apparent that things actually worsened in the Post-Reconstruction era—not only in the South, but throughout the United States, sometimes even from a federally permitted/mandated level. Additionally, the racial injustice and segregation in America extended to non-African Americans, as well: to any race, class, or religion that was different from what the “perfect American” was thought to be. (Native American Indians, Chinese, Irish, Catholics, Japanese and Italians were just a few of the groups targeted.) We cannot hide this history in our closets and pretend it didn’t happen.
We cannot simply claim that because we are not “the ones at fault” that we bear no role in rectifying the damage that was done over countless years and is now taking many years to repair. In Slavery by Another Name, Douglas A. Blackmon poignantly closes his book with this statement:
“When white Americans frankly peel back the layers of our commingled pasts, we are all marked by it. Whether a company or an individual, we are marred either by our connections to the specific crimes and injuries of our fathers and their fathers. Or we are tainted by the failures of our fathers to fulfill our national credos when their courage was most needed. We are formed in molds twisted by the gifts we received at the expense of others. It is not our “fault.” But it is undeniably our inheritance.”
As members of an affluent American society, we often enjoy luxuries and riches that were brought to us by the labors of underpaid or never paid (and often paid at the expense of life and health of) African Americans. We do not resist these luxuries on the account that we weren’t the ones who unjustly brought them about; likewise, neither should we resist the responsibilities we have in making reparations.
Beyond these sad histories, there were many who twisted Scripture to “justify” their actions and sentiments. (For example, “Is Segregation Scriptural,” written by Bob Jones, Sr., founder of Bob Jones University, uses Scripture to justify the belief that God designed the black race as inferior and that blacks and whites were to live “separate, but equal.” Slavery by Another Name also mentions frequent instances in which a good number of churches and ministers were some of the most adament proponents for segregation and teaching the inferiority of some races.) If this is part of our history institutionally or personally, we need to come right out and apologize not for simply “following the culture of the day,” but for doing worse: taking the culture of the day and twisting it to make it seem like it was biblical at a time when people were in desperate need for Christians to courageously stand for righteousness and justice.
Other Objections to MLK and Civil Rights
Beyond, these reasons, I’ve heard three common responses to MLK’s name merely being mentioned or quoted on blogs, Twitter, or Facebook.
1. “MLK was a heretic or a liberal.”
Ironically, it was the conservative/fundamentalist seminaries which denied blacks admittance into their schools for the longest amount of time. And if such an argument compels us to deny men a place in our history based on our theological alignment, then we most certainly must omit George Washington , Benjamin Franklin, or Thomas Jefferson.
As my former youth pastor wrote: “Martin Luther King Jr. is not the father of civil liberty. He simply read the same Bible we do with honest eyes and ears and allowed his hands, feet, and mouth to obey. He stirred the pot and paid for it with his life. Today, we honor a man who was willing to pay the ultimate price for doing what needed done.”
2. “MLK was an adulterer.”
Those who hated MLK and the civil rights movement worked diligently to spread information that MLK was involved in multiple extramarital, sexual relationships. Some speculate this is true and was used as blackmail, others say he was merely involved emotionally with other women, and others believe he is fully innocent.
3. “The Civil Rights movement made us have reverse racism.”
It is oversimplifying to say that we don’t owe African Americans anything simply because we’re not the ones at fault (see above).
Even if these three statements were fully and entirely true (they’re not), they aren’t excuses for anyone to tolerate segregation. MLK did what many were afraid to do, and he did so honorably. America would likely not be what it is today (and is hopefully becoming) had it not been for his influence.
Tim Crawley again writes:
“Cynicism cancels compassion. The Gospels record a compassionate Jesus. Sure, people were in their predicaments many times because of their sin, but cynicism is not in the heart of God. I am thankful that God helps me despite the messes I create for myself. I am thankful that I still can gain His attention after I fall. I am a recovering cynic. I am learning compassion.”
We Might Need to Admit:
1. That we’re naturally skeptical of people who aren’t like us, and that skepticism can quickly turn to racism, hatred, or even violence when we feel threatened that such people could potentially overpower us or simply outnumber us.
“Many whites still feel threatened at the prospect of African American neighbors—maybe not just one, but of any appreciable number. Residential segregation persists at high levels.” (Sundown Towns, page 16)
2. That we might be or we might have been racist.
John Piper introduces his helpful, needed book, Bloodlines, in this mini-documentary with these words: “One of the great sorrows of my life, and one of the reasons I love the Gospel of Jesus so much, is because I grew up in this home as a full-blooded racist…”
3. That we might not truly value all life as equal. We can scream “pro-life” when it fits our political agenda, but when we look at people and say or think, “those people shouldn’t be allowed to breed,” “black people do seem to be more violent, or feebleminded, or fill-in-the-blank,” or “our town,” or “our town or subdivision would be a better place if we didn’t have all these insert-race-or-ethnic group,” we’re revealing that we don’t truly value all life–we merely value the life that we deem as important.
“Sanctity of life” extends to far more than who we think should be born–it extends to how we regard all life, born or unborn, black or white. And it flows forth from what Jesus identified as the second greatest commandment: loving our neighbor as ourselves.
5 Resources to Help Understand MLK, Racism, and America’s Past:
2. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Clayborne Carson)
3. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (Douglas A. Blackmon)
4. Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism (James W. Loewen)
5. MLK’s “I Have a Dream” Speech (free online audio)
“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”