Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King immortalized many phrases still used in the contemporary American lexicon. But it was on Dec. 17, 1963 in a talk at Western Michigan University when he noted that the “most segregated hour in this nation” is 11 a.m. on Sunday.
Though many of King’s other famous quotes come from scripted speeches, the comment above actually was from part of a question-and-answer session with students and faculty about racial integration. He was asked if he believed that true racial integration must be spearheaded by the Christian churches, rather than in workplaces or on college campuses.
Suffice it to say that Dr. King begged to differ, and sadly, his words spoken 50 years ago ring eerily prophetic as we scan the halls of most of our churches. What he claimed then is still, today, a stark reality. He went on in his response:
“I’m sure that if the church had taken a stronger stand all along, we wouldn’t have many of the problems that we have. The first way that the church can repent, the first way that it can move out into the arena of social reform is to remove the yoke of segregation from its own body.”
But how? About the same time King made these keen observations, white people were leaving the inner cities by the millions, establishing more homogenous suburbs on the far boundaries of town. So-called “white flight” took hold, creating entirely new municipalities, while decaying urban centers were hollowed out, left only with an aging infrastructure and those who had no choice but to endure being left to fend for themselves.
As such, our churches were, in some ways, byproducts of the communities in which they found themselves.
Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of a day that changed America, changed the world, and changed my life forever. I was fourteen years old on Aug. 28, 1963, in my very white neighborhood, school, church, and world. But I was watching. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., became a founding father of this nation on that day, so clearly articulating how this union could become more perfect.
He didn’t say, “I have a complaint.” Instead, he proclaimed (and a proclamation it was in the prophetic biblical tradition), “I have a dream.” There was much to complain about for black Americans, and there is much to complain about today for many in this nation. But King taught us that day our complaints or critiques, or even our dissent will never be the foundation of social movements that change the world — but dreams always will. Just saying what is wrong will never be enough the change the world. You have to lift up a vision of what is right.
The dream was more than the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, which both followed in the years after the history-changing 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It finally was about King’s vision for “the beloved community,” drawn right from the heart of his Christian faith and a spiritual foundation for the ancient idea of the common good, which we today need so deeply to restore.
WASHINGTON — Fifty years to the day after Martin Luther King, Jr., knocked on the nation’s conscience with his dream, religious leaders gathered in a historic church to remind the nation that he was fueled by faith.
Later, in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial where King thundered about America’s unmet promises, King’s children joined the likes of President Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey to rekindle what Obama called a “coalition of conscience.”
At Shiloh Baptist Church, where King preached three years before his 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh clergy summoned King’s prophetic spirit to help reignite the religious fires of the civil rights movement.
King’s daughter, the Rev. Bernice A. King, said at the service that her father was a freedom fighter and a civil rights leader, but his essence was something else.
“He was a pastor,” said King, who was 5 when her father electrified the nation in front of the Lincoln Memorial. “He was a prophet. He was a faith leader.”
Editor's Note: The following is a transcript of President Barack Obama's speech from the Lincoln Memorial on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington.
We rightly and best remember Dr. King’s soaring oratory that day, how he gave mighty voice to the quiet hopes of millions; how he offered a salvation path for oppressed and oppressors alike. His words belong to the ages, possessing a power and prophecy unmatched in our time.
But we would do well to recall that day itself also belonged to those ordinary people whose names never appeared in the history books, never got on TV. Many had gone to segregated schools and sat at segregated lunch counters. They lived in towns where they couldn’t vote and cities where their votes didn’t matter. They were couples in love who couldn’t marry, soldiers who fought for freedom abroad that they found denied to them at home. They had seen loved ones beaten, and children fire-hosed, and they had every reason to lash out in anger, or resign themselves to a bitter fate.
The upcoming March on Washington has been on my mind as I reflect upon this week’s Gospel reading from Luke about a banquet. I personally love banquets. You get to adorn yourself with the finest trappings, dance the night away, and if the food is good, that is an added plus! But what I find most frustrating? Knowing a banquet is occurring, and I have not been invited. “Did I do something wrong? Do I not meet a certain standard? Who did get invited?” My wondering is filled with emotion.
What if America was a banquet, and at this banquet the servings were fair wages, just trials, civil rights and liberties, but offered by invitation only? According to those who “March(ed) on Washington,” this was exactly the case. Blacks deserved the same fair treatment as whites, and they were protesting to bring about the necessary changes. Perhaps if everyone took heed of Jesus’ instructions on banquet etiquette, things would be different and better.
As people stepped on our toes and stood anxiously in front of us, waiting to exit the crowded theater, three of us sat weeping at the close of Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Even now, as I recall that moment, it brings tears to my eyes.
How do I describe the movie? Utterly intense. Remarkable. Heartbreaking. Inspiring. A genius capturing of the complexities of the Civil Rights Movement, of the history of race in America in the 20th and early 21st centuries, of presidential decision making, and of family.
I sat next to my colleague, Lisa Sharon Harper, who sobbed at the violence, tragedy, and passionate courage displayed on screen. It was a challenge. To be a white woman sitting next to an African-American woman as she wept over the suffering of her people — often at the hands of my people. It was neither her nor I who had perpetrated these specific acts, but we are certainly still caught in the tangled web of systemic racism and the histories that our ancestors have wrought us.
Even as we had waited in the theater prior to the movie's start, we spoke of serious subjects. She shared some of her lineage and the challenges of legal records that simply do not exist when ancestors are slaves or perhaps a Cherokee Indian who escaped the Trail of Tears in Kentucky and suddenly appears on the U.S. Census in 1850 as an adult. We spoke of her leadership in the church, and I encouraged her to continue speaking even though she is one of the lone women who graces the stages in front of national audiences. I told her, "You must do this so that other women who come after you can do this. You must do this for women right now. You must do this so that I can do this." We bonded over being women in ministry.
And then the separation came. I do not know Lisa's shoes — the road that she walks due to the color of her skin. I see her in all of her glory — passion, intelligence, creativity — and not in all of her blackness. Our world sees her with racial eyes.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of both the issuing of Emancipation Proclamation and the battle of Gettysburg. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. All three moments marked major turning points in the fundamental American struggle to actualize the divine dream of life, liberty, and equality for all. That dream has been especially powerful through the struggle for African-American freedom.
From a biblical perspective, American slavery and Jim Crow segregation not only subjugated the body. For about 300 years, from Virginia’s first race-based slave laws in the 1660s to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the legal binding of black hands, feet, and mouths also bound spirits and souls. Both slavery and Jim Crow laws denied the dignity of human beings made in the image of God and forbade them from obeying God’s command to exercise Genesis 1:28 “dominion” — in today’s terms, human agency.
So, the Emancipation Proclamation and passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were cause for jubilee worship in black churches and among other abolitionists. Likewise when the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, churches across the nation erupted again in worshipful jubilee.
Now, nearly 50 years after the second American jubilee, African Americans are being stripped of dignity and constitutionally protected freedoms like we have not seen since Jim Crow.
Several years ago, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith criticized the quick-fix approach to racism found in the evangelical race reconciliation movement. They noted that evangelicals tended to address systemic racism through promoting interracial interactions at one-time events such as Promise Keepers rallies. Ironically, this approach tended to increase rather than decrease racism because it gave white evangelicals just enough exposure to people of color to think they now understood race without enough systemic interaction to expose them to the endemic nature of racism. They suggested instead that the preferred response was to engage in political and legal advocacy in order to change the institutional nature of racism. However, what they failed to address in that book is that political and legal approaches to race often suffer from the same quick-fix approach.
Today, we see the same quick-fix dynamics in the outcome of the George Zimmerman trial. Some are focusing again on developing interracial interpersonal relationships, while other evangelical groups have focused on legal advocacy. But in our rush to promote a “solution,” we may end up creating more harm than good. I believe evangelicals have the possibility of addressing racial injustice in a more creative way that could get more closely to the roots of the problem if we took the time to think creatively.
I was born in 1969 and thus am in the first generation of African-Americans to grow up with laws and policies that say to the rest of America that I am equal. I saw housing opportunities open up for me as my parents “broke the block” and became the first African-Americans to move onto an all-white block in the East Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia in 1970. I saw educational opportunities open up such that I was able to attend a nearly all-white private, college-prep high school in the suburbs. This was the fruit of the Civil Rights movement in my life growing up in the 1970s and 80s.
Soon hundreds of thousands will gather on the National Mall to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. That speech lived on for me in classrooms and in speech competitions and was etched on my heart so that I would carry that dream into the future.
The recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court to gut the enforcement section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the decision of the jury in the George Zimmerman trial have left me wondering about the dream, worried that it is under attack and worries that professed Christians are among those helping lead those attacks.
Where do we go from here?
From the denial of racism to the naming and facing of racism.
If we are to move forward, we must acknowledge that racism is alive and well in the American psyche. It continues to function as a demonic force with devastating consequences for us all. To be white in America is to benefit from a system of power and privilege whether or not one has ever uttered a racist thought or committed a racist act.
It is not very difficult to understand why there is a black church and a white church in America today, or to realize that this structure will not change in the near future. The religious atmosphere created by the coming together of blacks (who were slaves) and whites (who were masters) tended to negate any possibility of developing the true unity and oneness that scripture proclaims for the church. The agendas of the slaves were vastly different from those of the masters. Unfortunately, conflict over agendas, both stated and unstated, continues to be one of the reasons that blacks and whites do not come together to worship.
The battles over immigration reform and race have weighed heavily on me this summer. They have each become a symbol and a test, for me, of whether we can resurrect “the common good” in this nation.
I say that having just met with virtually all the key decision makers on when, how, and even if our nation’s politicians have the capacity to reform our terribly broken immigration system and help heal the nation from all the pain it has caused. Almost two-thirds of the country — both Democrat and Republican — is for reform, but this ideological impasse is now the greatest threat to our 11 million undocumented friends and neighbors in this country. I have met with both Republican and Democrat senators and members of Congress, including their leaders, the president and his leadership team, law enforcement officials, business leaders, and hundreds of pastors and Christians across denominations and backgrounds — all of whom want to repair this deeply flawed and cruel system.
There is so little substance to oppose reform. It’s good for the economy, for law enforcement, for families, communities, and congregations, and for the moral fabric of our nation — as a place of diversity, growth, and welcoming.
You see, politics really isn’t the problem here. Nobody wants to talk about what is at the very heart of the problem: race.
Eventually, Butch invited me to come to his home and meet his family. I felt deeply honored and very eager to go. But every time I asked him to write directions to his place, he would change the subject. Finally one day with pen and paper in hand, I sat him down and said, "Look, Butch, how do you expect me to get to your house if you don't write out directions for me?"
Awkwardly he began to scribble on the paper. I was deeply sad when I realized the reason he had hesitated before was that he could barely write; I was ashamed at my insensitivity.
That small incident was very significant to me. I went home that night and both cried and cursed. I could not believe that someone as bright as Butch had hardly been taught to write. I was furious at a system that had given me so much and him almost nothing, simply by virtue of our skin color. By accident of birth, I had all the benefits and he all the suffering. I vowed again through angry tears to do everything I could to change that system.
I suppose I could live my life saying, "I will never allow myself to try to understand white people. I will cut myself off from them. I will live my life as a black woman, and I'll just keep white people in boxes." But to do that means to keep myself cut off from a part of myself. And if white people do that about black people, I think the same is true: It keeps them cut off from a part of themselves.
For those of us who are Christians, I don't think we have any choice in the matter. I think God has made it clear that we're to be reconciled to God and each other. And if we're to be reconciled to each other, that includes everyone who happens to be in the world with us.
Reconciliation demands that you not take sides; it demands that you take a stand, I think—a stand that's maybe a merging of a lot of different pieces that represent several different kinds of philosophical stances. I think that one who chooses a road of reconciliation must be willing to look at more than one side of the coin.
WHO ARE WE? WHERE ARE WE GOING? And how are we going to get there? We can no longer answer these questions. Indeed, we have stopped asking them. But just as the future of blacks seemed to be in peril when integration was introduced decades ago, our future as a viable racial and ethnic group in this country will be greatly diminished unless a new model for racial and cultural development is established.
Jim Wallis sat down after the George Zimmerman verdict earlier this month to give his thoughts on race, faith, and truth.
"We live in our different worlds. That's not what we're supposed to do as the body of Christ."
IN SPIRITUAL AND BIBLICAL terms, racism is a perverse sin that cuts to the core of the gospel message. Put simply, racism negates the reason for which Christ died—the reconciling work of the cross. It denies the purpose of the church: to bring together, in Christ, those who have been divided from one another, particularly in the early church's case, Jew and Gentile—a division based on race.
There is only one remedy for such a sin and that is repentance, which, if genuine, will always bear fruit in concrete forms of conversion, changed behavior, and reparation. While the United States may have changed in regard to some of its racial attitudes and allowed some of its black citizens into the middle class, white America has yet to recognize the extent of its racism—that we are and have always been a racist society-—much less to repent of its racial sins.
I tend to keep my heart under lock and key. I am not prone to Merton-esque revelations. My conscious mind is a far safer vantage point from which to view life’s experiences, so when a friend invited me to go see the newly released Fruitvale Station last night, I thought that was the perspective from which I would see it: my logical mind, my heart under wraps. It was about a subject with which I have no experience and only vaguely remembered from the papers a few years back. I thought it would be a perfect film for my head to be educated while my heart remained safe. I was wrong.
Fruitvale Station broke my heart open.