Civil Rights – Religious Roots
Sermon for First Unitarian Denver by Rev. Mike Morran, all rights reserved
Reading, from Dr. Vincent Harding:
"We who must now continue to wrestle with the growing reality of economic injustice in America, we who are challenged to face the fact that this nation has no humane future if it does not deal with the re-humanizing of its cities, we who remember King’s unceasing warnings about the triple American evils of racism, militarism, and materialism, are engaged and assisted much more fully by the King of the post 1963 years than by an earlier, more convenient hero.
"…My hope is that we might press ourselves beyond amnesia and engage the tougher, more difficult King. As with Malcolm, one of King’s most significant characteristics in his last years was his willingness to take great risks on behalf of hope; to shake himself free of the more familiar, triumphant settings and to break loose toward the solitary unchartedness of the wilderness, especially if that exploratory movement might help him to respond more faithfully to the cries of the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized women, men, and children of our nation and our world.
"…Perhaps the memory of Martin King needs to be broken free from all official attempts to manage, market, and domesticate him. At the closing of his century, we need a truly free and inconvenient hero, one who may help us to explore new dimensions of our freedom, not simply as a private agenda, but to follow his unmanageable style of seeking and using freedom to serve the needs of the most vulnerable, the most unfree among us. My concern here is that we stop holding King captive to his most pliant history in order that he might help us to break free toward our most creative future as persons, as communities, as a nation. How else will we be worthy of such a magnificently inconvenient hero? How else will we discover the hero within us all?"
The reading came from a remarkable little book by Dr. Vincent Harding, the central tenet of which is that the Martin Luther King of our popular culture and the one most often quoted is a relatively easy and convenient Martin Luther King. Our cultural tendency, he writes, is to remember and celebrate the “I have a dream,” speech of August 1963. And how could it be forgotten? The words he spoke, the moral authority he carried, the passion of his belief, (not to mention an exquisite sense of inflection and cadence), and the eloquence of that vision have inspired two generations of civil-rights workers since then, and remain some of the most often quoted words of the twentieth century.
“Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed; “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”
(Quote omitted from the spoken version.)
Harding’s point is that this King, the one we know fairly well, was a Martin King still very much in transition; a man still wrestling with bigger questions, still searching for more meaningful answers; a man who for all his public passion, was still troubled by a sense that racial equality was only the beginning; a man searching soulfully for a handle on the deeper issues. My hope this morning is threefold. First, I hope to explore a little of the more difficult Martin King after “I have a dream.” Secondly, I hope to shed a little light on why the civil rights leader of 1963 made many in power uncomfortable, but it was his later growth and the answers he found after “I have a dream,” that turned him into an economic and foreign policy activist that by 1968 was scaring them half to death. Third, nothing could be clearer from a study of Martin King’s life and work than that this highly complicated man was motivated at the root of things by his profound faith in God and the teachings of Jesus. I hope to explore this faith a little bit, to show how it is different from mainline Christianity, and why. The Christianity of Martin Luther King, strongly influenced by Howard Thurman, is not nearly so much about doctrine and dogma as it is about right relationships among people, speaking the truth to power, seeking justice, and giving Life to the spirit of a Love that must encompass all things, and all people.
You might remember, if you lived through that time, or if you’ve read some history of the civil rights movement, that it was only a few weeks after “I have a dream,” that the bomb went off in the 16th street Baptist Church, killing four little girls. It was only a year and a half later that the first march in Selma, Alabama was turned back by attack dogs and water hoses. Seventy marchers were hospitalized and two were killed. It was in this period that King began to publicly ask the deeper questions, questions that got him into trouble not only with the authorities, but with other black leaders. He had begun to articulate the connection between violence and poverty. He had begun to articulate how he wanted to reshape the movement beyond racism and racial equality to a much broader and more inclusive kind of justice. He had begun to articulate that this would mean questioning some of the fundamental assumptions that underlie our entire society; questions about power, money, justice, opportunity, and how these abstractions are lived out in policies both explicit and hidden.
He began to speak, not just for civil rights but about foreign policy. He spoke out strongly against the Vietnam War. He called attention to our secret agendas and practices in Central America, and to our tacit approval of apartheid in South Africa. He spoke out about the economic investment that was even then occurring in other parts of Asia, Africa, and South America, investments which inevitably aligned the powerful of the United States with the oppressive, often tortuously violent regimes of these regions. He spoke out against the power of the military-industrial complex that even then was swallowing up unbelievably vast amounts of money and resources while millions lived in slums and ghettos.
Listen to the Martin King of 1967:
“I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about “Where do we go from here?” that we must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, “Who owns the oil?” you begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?” You begin to ask the question, “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?” These are words that must be said.”
By this time, King was under criticism from almost everywhere. The mainstream media was regularly calling him a communist and a traitor. He made an enemy of Lyndon Johnson for his criticism of the war. He was accused of harming his own people by speaking to issues outside of his concern. He even lost the support of other Black civil-rights leaders who saw in his attention to these broader issues a betrayal of the cause of racial equality. The trouble was that he was dead serious. The 1963 dream of racial equality had expanded to the hard work of broader economic justice and to world peace. His work in 1967 and 1968 was moving solidly and purposefully toward uniting poor people of all races and backgrounds. In 1967, he conceived and initiated the Poor People’s Campaign, an idea for organizing poor people of all races and from all walks of American life in an attempt to raise consciousness and affect public policy.
Keep in mind though, that if the racial equality aspect of the civil rights movement brought anger and bewilderment from the establishment, the Poor Peoples Campaign was frightening beyond belief.
The Poor People’s Campaign never really got off the ground. On April 4th, 1968, King was killed in Memphis Tennessee, by a single bullet to the throat.
Legend has it that King carried two well-worn and battered books with him wherever he went. One of them was Civil Disobedience, by Henry David Thoreau, and the other was Jesus And The Disinherited, by Howard Thurman. Though never taking an actively public role in the civil-rights movement, Thurman served as the unofficial spiritual advisor to many of the leaders, including Martin King. The old joke in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was that Thurman could have been their messiah, if he hadn’t been such a mystic. But Thurman must be our beginning point for understanding the faith that sustained Martin King. In my opinion, it is the development of such a faith, if not in its particulars, at least in its quality, that will crucial for all of us if we wish to take up the gauntlet that Vincent Harding laid down when he asks, “How else shall we discover the hero within us all?
The Jesus of Howard Thurman, and we may assume the Jesus of Martin King, is Jesus as religious leader and teacher, rather than as religious object. Ponder that subtle yet profound difference for a moment, for it is key. To see Jesus as a religious leader rather than as a religious object is to focus on his words and deeds rather than upon the theology that has dominated Christianity for too many centuries. It is to interpret those words and deeds, recognizing the context in which Jesus lived and worked, and to be concerned, less with that nature of Jesus himself than with the message he spoke and taught.
Thurman begins with the observation that Jesus was first and foremost a Jew, his homeland occupied by a foreign army, his people having few civil rights and almost no protection under the law. Secondly, Jesus was a poor Jew, almost certainly illiterate, the child of an itinerant tradesman, and an itinerant tradesman himself. To Thurman, and to King, this makes Jesus uniquely qualified to be the spiritual leader of the poor and the oppressed. It also makes traditional Christianity, long used by the strong as a tool of oppression against the weak, largely irrelevant to any except to those who are already powerful.
About Jesus, Thurman wrote; “His message focused on the urgency of a radical change in the inner attitude of the people. He recognized fully that out of the heart are the issues of life and that no external force, however great and overwhelming, can at long last destroy a people if it does not first win the victory of the spirit against them.”
In this light, Thurman and Martin King understand everything that Jesus said and did as having both religious and political implications. After all, Jesus, when he speaks, is not speaking to, and certainly not thinking about white people in twentieth century America. He is speaking to his fellow Jews, poor, oppressed by the Romans, heavily taxed, and at the whim of any passing soldier. Jesus is bringing his ministry and his message to people whose situation was somewhat similar to what people of color have lived through for most of American history. King sees the ministry of Jesus as a direct response to this social and political reality, and understands all of his teaching in this context. To King, Jesus is a reformer, seeking to refocus his people on a sustaining faith even as they struggle for survival as second class citizens. Here’s another passage from Thurman talking about Jesus: “He (Jesus) recognized with authentic realism that anyone who permits another to determine the quality of his inner life gives into the hands of the other the keys to his destiny.” Now, I did not grow up in a traditional Christian context, but my understanding is that this is not an interpretation of Jesus you are likely to find in a typical Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Episcopalian, or Catholic Church! Yet this is precisely the way that Martin King interprets the teachings of Jesus, and it is precisely this faith that King brings to his listeners.
Here’s a passage from 1967 where King is using the bible to make his central point:
“One day, one night, a juror came to Jesus and he wanted to know what he could do to be saved. Jesus didn’t get bogged down on the kind of isolated approach of what you shouldn’t do. Jesus didn’t say, “Now, Nicodemus, you must stop lying.” He didn’t say, “Now, Nicodemus, now you must not commit adultery.” He didn’t say, “Now, Nicodemus, you must stop cheating if you are doing that.” He didn’t say, "Nicodemus, you must stop drinking liquor if you are doing that excessively.” He said something different, because Jesus realized something basic: that if a man will lie, he will steal. And if a man will steal, he will kill. So instead of just getting bogged down on one thing, Jesus looked at him and said, “Nicodemus, you must be born again.”
"In other words, “Your whole structure must be changed.” A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will “thingify” them and make them things. And therefore, they will exploit them and poor people generally economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and it will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together.
"What I’m saying today is that we must go from this convention and say, “America, you must be born again!”
Notice how the focus is on what Jesus said and did, not on who or what Jesus was or is. Notice also that the interpretation is multi-leveled. The message speaks to both the spirit of the individual seeker, and also to the social and political arena. Both Jesus and Martin King realize that these are not categories that can be compartmentalized or separated, but are inextricably woven together in every heart and soul. The Christian faith of Martin King was a justification for tearing down the structures of authority, the exact opposite of how Christianity had been used for seventeen hundred years. And, underneath this is the more central teaching of Jesus, which is God’s abiding love, not just a select few, but for all of God’s creatures, and the clear responsibility he gives us for bringing about this transformation in our own hearts and in the world. Our role as human beings and as children of God is to engage the work of healing and reconciliation. And, it doesn’t take a genius to see that there can be no authentic healing or reconciliation without justice. This is the essence of King’s religious motivation.
The goal is brotherhood, and there can be no authentic brotherhood without justice.
What Martin King came to in the last years of his life is that the single largest injustice in our world is represented by the huge gap between the haves and the have-nots, the distribution of wealth. He recognized that it is this very system which creates and perpetuates a vast underclass of poverty stricken people, incongruously surrounded by the greatest material wealth the world has ever seen.
This was not a popular position to take. It is still not a popular position to take. It has been argued that the main reason the civil rights movement petered out is that when it started, the goal was essentially to split up the American pie more equitably by bringing African Americans into the mainstream, removing the status as second-class citizens that has existed for centuries, and seeking racial integration. But King had moved on from that noble cause. By the end of his life at thirty nine, the dream had grown both deeper and wider. It had become a dream, not of simply mainstreaming, but of forging a whole new river.
Sadly, if King knew what that new river looked like from having been to the mountaintop he refers to in the last speech of his life, he did not share the details of its construction. The shape, quality, and texture of the new river he had begun to envision remains an unanswered, and a very inconvenient question for all of us.
Despite this, we must remember that the faith of Martin King was one great hope. He believed in the cause and he believed it was the right and faithful thing to do, even in the face of tremendous odds, the very real threat of violence, and the high probability of failure. Even failure, King heard from Jesus, does not give us a justification for not trying. In this way both Jesus and Martin King leave us with a very inconvenient legacy.
“Where do we go from here?”
Don Marquis posed the question poetically like this; "What shall have ultimate dominion, shall it be Dream, or shall it be dust?" I believe that to be a people of Faith means that we choose the Dream, and then we put our faith to work.
Benediction: from Martin Luther King Jr.
“Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness than ever before. Let us stand with a greater determination than ever before and let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America what it ought to be.”