A Passing of the Baton

From left, Lisa Sharon Harper, Bernice King, Virgil Wood, and Sharon Watkins discuss faith, race, and the future of the church.

BERNICE KING watched as, one by one, the heads of denominations from across the nation bent down to sign the Christian Churches Together in the U.S.A. “Response to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail.’” Transfixed, King—Martin King’s daughter—sat in the first row of a church one block from Kelly Ingram Park, where 50 years before children had run scared, ravaged by German shepherds and fire hoses.

As they signed, the presidents of CCT’s five church “families” stepped to the podium. Each read his or her church family’s confession of complicity with the demons of racism and injustice during and since the civil rights era.

Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. sat behind bars in the Birmingham city jail and responded to criticism from eight local white clergy’s “Call for Unity” against outside agitators. King penned prophetic words in the margins of the newspaper that carried the white clergy’s call for “law and order and common sense.”

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” King explained. He recounted the failed attempts to negotiate with city officials hell-bent on living a “monologue rather than dialogue.” He clarified: “The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

King’s letter was a response to the protests of eight white clergy, but in an existential sense it was to the whole U.S. church.

Fifty years later, on April 15, 2013, after every denomination had added its “amen” and every confession had been read aloud, Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter walked forward to receive a signed copy of the Christian Churches Together’s response to her father’s letter. It was a heavy and a beautiful moment. A baton was passed.

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