The Unfinished Legacy of Martin Luther King

As you might know, Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which means Facebook and Twitter came alive with the words of Dr. King, who remains eminently quotable on a host of topics, not least of which were justice, inequality, race and war – evergreen topics about which his words still ring true today, 40-50 years after he first spoke them.

In the spate of MLK-related blog posts that also happens this time every year, the preacher at my church posted this gem of a YouTube video, King’s late 1950s appearance on Meet the Press when he was just 31 years old and leading the lunch-counter sit-ins across the South (Part 3, which contains the quote I want to discuss is above; here’s the link to Part 1). He was only a decade away from his death, but much would change in those 10 years, including the passage of a comprehensive civil rights bill. Just 40 years after his death, America elected a black man as president. There is no doubt that King accomplished much in the short time he had to do it.

It so happens that I’m reading the book Unfinished Reconciliation: Justice, Racism & Churches of Christ, published in 2003. In this case, Churches of Christ are the group of New Testament restorationist congregations who trace their lineage back to Alexander Campbell (the more conservative members would argue they trace it back to Jesus, but that’s simply untrue from a purely historical perspective).

Anyway, early in the book, Dr. Harold Marks, a minister at the Highland Street Church of Christ in Memphis, Tenn., discusses the Minor Prophets and, though not explicitly – and perhaps not even intentionally, though I kind of doubt that – draws a connection between them and King, America’s most famous prophetic voice:

Hosea, Amos and Micah went against the flow. Their dreams were not what the common people of that time had in mind for their future. These Minor Prophets were not swayed by the cultural majority. Through God, they saw a different kind of world that God would create. There is power in a vision.

Somebody in every community must see people flowing to Zion to hear the word of God. Someone must see a vision of the nation hammering military hardware into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Someone must paint a picture of a society has his or her own fig tree and vine. Dreamers do not have dreams; dreams have dreamers. The dreams come from God, not from us.

Many of King’s dreams came true, though he did not live to see them. But there is still a glaring blind spot in our self-congratulation over the amount of racial progress we’ve made in the four decades since King’s death.

Late in his Meet the Press appearance. King is asked a rather loaded question about whether any white people attended his church in Atlanta. After King responds that none did, the questioner, a reporter for the Nashville Banner, which I’m sure had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the unnecessary hostility he evinces in his questioning, then uses King’s previous statements in the program against him and asks whether the president should issue an order integrating America’s churches.

King’s response is still just as true today as it was then:

I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation – one of the most shameful tragedies – that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hour, in Christian America. I definitely think American churches should be integrated, and that any church that stands against integration and that has a segregated body is standing against the spirit and the teachings of Jesus Christ, and it fails to be a true witness. But this is something that the church will have to do itself. I don’t think church integration will come through legal processes. I might say that my church is not a segregating chuch. It is segregated, but it is not segregating. It would welcome white members.

This, unfortunately, has changed little. Later in Unfinished Reconciliation, in a chapter about the history of segregation in Churches of Christ, Dr. Doug Foster, a church historian from Abilene Christian University, writes the following:

We whites thought that integration of our churches and schools would take care of the problems. The truth is that mere integration neither resolves the problem nor absolves the sin. In fact, mere integration creates new problems that are perhaps more subtle, insidious and destructive than those it was meant to solve. Mere integration erodes the strengths of minority culture. It says in effect, ‘Now we’ll let you come over and be like us. But don’t expect us to change – after all, we’re already at the top. If you want to do well, you’ll act and think like us.’

Foster quotes from a book called Divided by Faith, which has the following sad nugget:

When white evangelicals spoke of integrating congregations, they meant that their specific congregation ought to be open to all people. They did not mean they should consider going to a mixed or nonwhite congregation. No one spoke about this possibility. Further, no one spoke of the need for the congregation to adapt or diversify the way it does things to become racially mixed. That means that it must be other people, not them, who would have to make the change.

Those who did not support the mixed-race congregations idea were fairly pragmatic in their reasons. Comfort and enjoyment were common themes. In the words of one Christian Reformed man, “I think the whole concept of blacks and whites worshipping together is great, but how can you do that when you feel so uncomfortable?

Eleven o’clock is still the most segregated hour in America. Will that change in the next 40 years? If so, what will it take?

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