Fifty Years Later – His Battles Live On
“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.” Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
I was seven years old when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his final speech in Memphis, at the Mason Temple Church, an African American Pentecostal church – titled “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”. He would be assassinated the following evening on April 4, 1968, by a fugitive named James Earl Ray. King was 39 years old.
He was an activist speaking out against racism and white supremacy. He believed in non-violent protest. And he was murdered by a sniper’s bullet. Rachel Swarn writing for the New York Times says King was “pushing the government to address poverty, income inequality, structural racism and segregation”. “All the issues that he raised toward the end of his life are as contemporary now as they were then,” said Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer-Prize winning historian who has written several books about Dr. King.
Ironically, some of the strongest opposition being felt by King and his movement was from white clergymen. What has been described as his “literary and rhetorical masterpiece” was King’s 1963 open letter “The Negro Is Your Brother,” better known as the “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” It was written by King while in prison for a protest in Birmingham and was in response to a classic “we the undersigned” statement made by eight white Alabama clergymen titled “A Call for Unity.”
But what was in Kings favour was not that he was an activist speaking out against racism, but that he was a pastor appealing to a higher authority. As Dr. King wrote in his autobiography: “I feel that preaching is one of the most vital needs of our society…” Current president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention Dr Russell Moore writes:
With this the case, the legitimacy of segregation crumbled just as the legitimacy of slavery had in the century before, and for precisely the same reasons. Segregation, like slavery, was shown to be what all human consciences already knew it to be: not just a political injustice or a social inequity (although certainly that) but also a sin against God and neighbour and a repudiation of the gospel.
So to the churches, especially the churches of the South, King’s message was simple: you have to choose – be a Christian or be a white supremacist; you can’t be both. His ‘position’ was “neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”
So to the churches today? “The church has been to some degree disengaged,” said the Rev Dr W Franklin Richardson of Grace Baptist Church. “Churches that have social consciousness are pushed by this anniversary into a place of reflecting on how far we have come or not come, and have we abandoned what he gave his life for?”
Lord, take us again to the mountaintop.