John Turner on David Garrow’s MLK Essay

Martin Luther King Jr. Day on the Web and Elsewhere

Like John Turner, I am really surprised by how little conversation has taken place about historian David Garrow’s bombshell article about Martin Luther King Jr.’s  moral indiscretions.  If you are unfamiliar with the argument or the debate, get up to speed here and here and here.

The George Mason University religion professor has weighed-in at The Anxious Bench blog. He is correct to note that “we have an obligation to think through the issues involved in this unsavory subject, which is bound to turn up the next time we assign Letter from a Birmingham Jail or discuss King in the classroom.”

His post is worth reading in full.  Here is a taste to whet your appetite:

6. The most explosive charge, though, relates not to adultery but to King’s presence during an alleged rape and his encouragement of this violent crime.

From Garrow’s essay:

The group met in his [Logan Kearse’s] room and discussed which women among the parishioners would be suitable for natural or unnatural sex acts. When one of the women protested that she did not approve of this, the Baptist minister [Kearse] immediately and forcibly raped her,” the typed summary states, parenthetically citing a specific FBI document (100-3-116-762) as its source. “King looked on, laughed and offered advice,”Sullivan or one of his deputies then added in handwriting.

Ransby’s analysis here is spot-on :

Mr. Garrow walks the reader through the graphic details of what 1960s F.B.I. agents described as Dr. King’s consensual encounters with numerous women. Whether or not Mr. Garrow intended it, the attention in his essay to these reports reads to me as an effort to offer circumstantial evidence to support an allegation of a rape that purportedly occurred in Dr. King’s presence.

Moreover, Ransby observes that Garrow rests his most explosive claim on a parenthetical comment. I would add that that parenthetical comment would almost certainly be difficult to derive from the audiotape.

The claim is a bombshell. Is it outlandish to think that there might be some chance of learning corroborating (or non-corroborating) evidence from other sources, even from interviews with the children of the people allegedly involved in this crime?

If more evidence comes to light that King egged on a rape, then, yes, of course, Americans would have to collectively think through how we commemorate this man.

7. All of this points to the danger of making saints out of historical figures. Undoubtedly, humans have a need for heroes, but we have every reason to be very cautious in our construction of heroes. Historians have an obligation to sift through all of the available evidence when it comes to reaching conclusions about the people we study. Christians, moreover, have a mountain of examples from the Bible about the likelihood that humans will exhibit  feet of clay. Abraham. David. Peter.

8, and finally, I entirely agree with David Greenberg’s denunciation of the “troll-like schadenfreude peppering right-wing media in the last few days.” It’s not even just right-wing media. It’s the human desire to see those on pedestals taken down a notch or two (or in this case ten). Sometimes this serves to make us feel better about ourselves. Or sometimes we just enjoy the salacious details and drama of a story such as this. These sorts of reactions are mean and misguided. No one should take pleasure in this story. Even setting aside Garrow’s bombshell, think about the pain that King’s extramarital behavior must have caused many individuals. There’s a subset of Americans who have never come around on the Civil Rights Movement, who feel about King much the way that many white Americans felt in the 1950s and 1960s, or the way that Jesse Helms felt in the early 1980s. It is a shame that they would relish the potential posthumous fall of an American hero.

Read the entire post here.

Another MLK Scholar Weighs-In on the Garrow Article

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Jason Miller, an English professor at North Carolina State University and a King scholar, defends David Garrow’s controversial article on MLK’s moral indiscretions.  (See our coverage of Garrow’s article here).

Here is a taste of Miller’s article at The Conversation:

It’s natural to want to defend King – to say, “let’s wait and see.”

Others might try to argue that abuse precedes abuse, and that the long legacy of slavery still informed the actions of these revered black clergy who subconsciously became like their oppressors. This legacy, of course, often included white men raping black women and sometimes disowning their children.

But I don’t think any filter of rationalization can soften this portrait of King. I’m not prepared to wait eight years, and I’ve halted my two scholarly projects about King.

I’ve also started thinking about what happens next.

What will the next Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations look like? Will other details emerge? Will more women come forward? Will community centers, schools and streets need to be renamed? Will statues come down, or will they remain – and give fodder to those who justify keeping Confederate monuments?

King espoused nonviolence. If these memos are true, such a stance feels hypocritical.

The narrative has just changed. And if scholarship and true biographical research matters at all, one thing is clear: These FBI memos may have forever damaged King’s legacy.

Read the entire piece here.

More Context on David Garrow’s MLK Article

Hoover

Historian Trevor Griffey of UCLA puts the Garrow article on Martin Luther King Jr. in the larger context of the FBI investigation of the civil rights icon.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Conversation: “J. Edgar Hoover’s Revenge“:

An article just published by the U.K.-based Standpoint Magazine alleges that civil rights icon Martin Luther King witnessed and even celebrated a woman’s rape.

Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow, one of King’s biographers, the claim relies upon recently declassified Federal Bureau of Investigation documents that summarize tape recordings of King’s extramarital affairs.

The allegation that King witnessed a rape and did not stop it is a serious one. Its impact on how we understand and tell U.S. history, and King’s role in it, is likely to be debated for years.

It’s important to reevaluate King’s legacy in light of this new information.

But as an historian who has done substantial research in FBI files on the black freedom movement, I believe that it’s also important to understand how this information came to be public.

Read the rest here.

How is David Garrow’s MLK Article Faring Today?

King preaching

We are starting to hear from historians and others on today’s David Garrow’s Standpoint piece on Martin Luther’s King’s moral indiscretions.  I linked to the article here and blogged about it last night.

Here is some news/commentary on Garrow’s piece that we found today.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution covers Garrow’s piece, has an article about Garrow, and explains to readers why it is covering this story.  In the latter piece, the AJC mentions that Garrow approached the paper with his findings and wanted to work together on an investigative report. AJC declined because it did not have access to the King tapes.  (The tapes will be released in 2027).

Meanwhile, the Washington Post quotes several historians.  Gillian Brockell’s piece notes that Garrow has been skeptical in the past about using FBI memos on historical research.  Garrow makes the case that the MLK memos are different. Yale’s Glenda Gilmore questions the veracity of the hand-written notes in the memos.  (This is relevant because the reference to King watching a rape is hand-written). Gilmore adds that FBI files often contain “a great deal of speculation, interpolation from snippets of facts, and outright errors.”  Nathan Connolly of Johns Hopkins is also “deeply suspicious” about Garrow’s sources.  He said that Garrow’s decision to publish these documents is “archivally irresponsible.”

From this article at Insider we learn that the Guardian originally accepted the piece and then retracted it at the last minute.  It was also rejected by The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and The Intercept.

I am sure there are historians working on op-eds and blog posts as I type this.  I will monitor this as best I can.

Of course I have no idea if any of the allegations in Garrow’s piece are true.  Historians will offer interpretations.  The way they respond to this story could have career-defining implications.  I think you will see a lot of caution and hedging over the next few days and weeks.  And, I might add, this is a good thing.  Historians should be the last people to rush to judgement (one way or another) on a story like this.

Journalists will now try to track down people who know something about what is written in these FBI memos.  They will shape the so-called “first draft” of this story.

Indeed, as Connolly and Gilmore note, we need to think about bias in these FBI sources.  This is important, especially in light of what we know about J. Edgar Hoover.  I read some of the documents embedded in Garrow’s piece and I also had suspicions about the hand-written marginal comments.  The memos Garrow found were documents that were obviously part of an ongoing editing process.  I am guessing that the final, more polished, reports are with the tapes.  Once historians see them they will be able to make more definitive statements about how the FBI interpreted the tapes.

We also know that context teaches us that King was not a saint when it came to these encounters with women who were not his wife.  Any historian will take this into consideration. King historians can comment on just how far of an intellectual leap is needed to get from what we already knew about King to the allegations in the FBI memos.

And what if we learn that Garrow is right about King?  This will be a reminder that all historical figures are complex and deeply flawed people.  Stay tuned.

This is also a great opportunity for teaching students and others about how to read the Internet responsibly.  (See Sam Wineburg’s new book and our interview with him here).  Different news outlets and opinion sites are already reporting this story in different ways.

Garrow’s MLK Article is Here

Garrow

We blogged about this yesterday.  Now you can read it for yourself.  Here is a taste  Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow‘s piece on Martin Luther King Jr.”

Newly-released documents reveal the full extent of the FBI’s surveillance of the civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King in the mid-1960s. They expose in graphic detail the FBI’s intense focus on King’s extensive extramarital sexual relationships with dozens of women, and also his presence in a Washington hotel room when a friend, a Baptist minister, allegedly raped one of his “parishioners”, while King “looked on, laughed and offered advice”. The FBI’s tape recording of that criminal assault still exists today, resting under court seal in a National Archives vault.

The FBI documents also reveal how its Director, J. Edgar Hoover, authorised top Bureau officials to send Dr King a tape-recording of his sexual activities along with an anonymous message encouraging him to take his own life.

The complete transcripts and surviving recordings are not due to be released until 2027 but when they are made fully available a painful historical reckoning concerning King’s personal conduct seems inevitable.

On January 31, 1977, US District Judge John Lewis Smith signed an extraordinary court order requiring the Federal Bureau of Investigation to surrender all the fruits of its extensive electronic surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr to the National Archives. “Said tapes and documents,” Smith instructed, shall be “maintained by the Archivist of the United States under seal for a period of fifty years,” or until January 31, 2027.

However, in recent months, hundreds of never-before-seen FBI reports and surveillance summaries concerning King have silently slipped into public view on the Archives’ lightly-annotated and difficult-to-explore web site. This has occurred thanks to the provisions of The President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act, which mandated the public release of tens of thousands of government documents, many of which got swept up into congressional investigations of US intelligence agencies predating Judge Smith’s order. Winnowing the new King items from amidst the Archive’s 54,602 web-links, many of which lead to multi-document PDFs that are hundreds of pages long, entailed weeks of painstaking work.

Read the entire piece here and read the links to the apparent FBI documents.  If Garrow’s story checks out, this is bad–really bad.  Of course some of this documents provide evidence for stories that have been circulating in the African-American community for a long time.

Dinesh D’Souza Thinks He Knows Something About How African-American History is Taught

David Garrow, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Martin Luther King Jr., will drop a bombshell tomorrow (Thursday) when Standpoint magazine will publish an article, based on memos that discuss FBI tapes, that paints the Civil Rights icon in a very unflattering light.  Here is what Garrow claims:

  • FBI documents from the 1960s allege Martin Luther King Jr. had affairs with 40 women and stood by as a friend raped a woman, a new report said.
  • An article by the King biographer David Garrow set to be released on Thursday in Standpoint magazine will detail the FBI memos, London’s The Times reported.
  • Garrow said the memos say King engaged in orgies, solicited prostitutes, and “looked on and laughed” as a pastor he knew raped a woman.
  • The memos were part of a huge US National Archives data dump in early 2019.
  • The FBI secretly recorded King in a years long effort to discredit him. The tapes themselves remain under seal in the US National Archives. And Garrow’s article was rejected by more prominent news outlets. So the story carries many unanswered questions about the accuracy of the FBI material.
  • The King Center, which chronicles King’s life, has not yet commented on the allegations.

Learn more here.  Let’s see how this unfolds tomorrow as Civil Rights historians respond to Garrow’s article.

In the meantime, Laura Ingraham and the Fox News crowd are all over this story.  I am guessing they could not find a legitimate historian of King or the Civil Rights movement to comment on Garrow’s article so, as Fox News is prone to do, they turned to conservative pundit Dinesh D’Souza. Watch:

D’Souza seems to be basking in all of this.  By the way, who are all of these progressive historians who “hate” and “do not want to teach” Frederick Douglass, Ida Wells, and Harriett Tubman?  I don’t consider myself a “progressive historian,” but I certainly consider myself a critic of D’Souza. I have been teaching Douglass every semester for two decades.  David Blight of Yale just won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Douglass.  Douglass’s Narrative remains a fixture on history syllabi across the country.  I am sure scholars of Wells and Tubman can weigh-in as well.

And D’Souza continues to think the Republican Party has not changed on issues related to the plight of African Americans and race since the Civil War. I wrote about this here, but I will defer to Princeton’s Kevin Kruse.

Highlander Research and Education Center Torched. White Supremacy Symbol Found.

Highlander

MLK, Pete Seeger, Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy, and Charis Horton at Highland Institute, 1957 (Source: http://www.highlandercenter.org)

I am surprised that this is not getting more news coverage.

The Highlander Folk School was founded in 1932 in Grundy County, Tennessee to train labor organizers. By the 1950s, it became a center for training civil rights workers. Rosa Parks prepared for her role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott at the school.  Septima Clark, Martin Luther King Jr., James Bevel, Pete Seeger, Ralph Abernathy, and John Lewis also studied there.

Today it is known as the Highlander Research and Education Center (it moved to New Market, TN in 1971).

On March 29, 2019, the Center burned to the ground.  Here is NBC News:

A Tennessee social justice center that has hosted iconic civil rights leaders was destroyed in a fire and a “white power” symbol was found on the site, the center said.

The symbol, which officials did not describe but said was connected to the white power movement, was discovered after the main office was completely destroyed in a fire last week, the Highlander Research and Education Center said in a news release Tuesday. It was spray-painted on the parking lot connected to the main office.

No one was hurt in Friday’s blaze.

“While we don’t know the names of the culprits, we know that the white power movement has been increasing and consolidating power across the South, across this nation, and globally,” Highlander said. “Since 2016, the white power movement has become more visible, and we’ve seen that manifest in various ways, both subtle and overt.”

And this:

Highlander’s main office was home to decades’ worth of documents, speeches and memorabilia that was lost in the fire, the center said on Facebook.

The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office on Saturday said in a statement that investigators were working with state bomb and arson agents to determine the cause of the fire.

“We are investigating a symbol that was painted in the parking area of the office to see if it has any affiliation to any individual or group,” the sheriff’s office said.

Highlander’s office burned one day after the Oklahoma Democratic Party headquarters and a Chickasaw Nation office were vandalized with racist graffiti. The offices were spray-painted with messages that included a swastika, “1488” — which is frequently used by white supremacists and refers to Adolf Hitler — and anti-Chinese slurs.

Read the entire piece here.

Scholars of the civil rights movement:  How devastating is the archival loss?

Can the Civil Rights Movement Serve as a Model of Evangelical Political Engagement?

king grave

An excerpt from Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

If you picked up this book and have made it this far, you will not be surprised that I think about evangelical political engagement from the perspective of a historian.  While we always need to be careful about taking lessons from the “foreign country” of the past and applying them to contemporary issues, we certainly should not ignore our natural inclination to find a usable past.  What kind of historical examples can we find of Christians living faithfully–and engaging politically–from positions located outside the corridors of power and privilege?

In June 2017, I spent ten days with my family and several colleagues from Messiah College traveling through the American South on a civil rights movement bus tour.  Our trip took us to some of the most important sites and cities of the movement.  We made stops in Greensboro, Atlanta, Albany, Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham, Memphis , and Nashville.  Along the way we spent time with some of the veterans of the movement.  In Atlanta we heard from Juanita Jones Abernathy, the wife and co-laborer of Ralph Abernathy, one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest associates.  In Albany we sang civil rights songs with Rutha Mae Harris, one of the original  Freedom Singers.  In Selma we met Joanne Bland, a local activist who, at the age of eleven, participated in all three Edmund Pettus Bridge marches.  In Birmingham, we talked with Carolyn Maul McKinstry and Lisa McNair.  McKinstry was fifteen years old when she survived the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963.  That explosion took the life of McNair’s sister, whom she never had a chance to meet.  In Nashville, we listened to the inspirational stories of Ernest “Rip” Patton , one of the early freedom riders, and Kwame Leonard, one of the movement’s behind-the-scenes organizers.

As I processed everything that I learned on the “Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights” bus tour, I kept returning to thoughts about the relationship between religion and politics.  Donald Trump had been in office for under five months, but my anger and frustration upon learning that 81 percent of my fellow evangelicals had voted for him were still fresh.  As I listened to the voices of the movement veterans, walked the grounds that they had walked, and saw the photographs, studied the exhibits, and watched the footage, it was clear that I was witnessing a Christian approach to politics that was very different from the one that catapulted Trump into the White House.  Hope, humility, and a responsible use of American history defined the political engagement and social activism of the civil rights movement.

HOPE

 Those who participated in the civil rights movement had much to fear: bombs, burning crosses, billy clubs, death threats, water hoses, police dogs, and lynch mobs–to name a few.  They feared for their lives of their families and spent every day wondering whether they would still be around to continue the fight the next day.  For these reasons, many African Americans, understandably, did not participate in the movement and prevented their children from getting involved.  The danger was very real.

Martin Luther King Jr. knew this.  When we visited the old Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the church where King was baptized  and where he (and his father) served as pastor, his final sermon, the one he delivered in Memphis on April 3, 1968, was playing over the speakers.  King was in Memphis to encourage sanitation workers fighting for better pay and improved working conditions.  I sat in the back pew and listened:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now.  We’ve got some difficult days ahead.  But it really doesn’t matter with me now.  Because I’ve been to the mountaintop.  And I don’t mind.  Like anybody, I would like to live a long life.  Longevity has its place.  But I’m not concerned about that now.  I just want to do God’s will.  And he has allowed me to go up to the mountain.  And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land.  I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.  So I’m happy tonight.  I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing anything.  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord

It was a message of hope.  Because of his faith, God had given him–and the men and women of the movement he led–all the strength they would need to continue the struggle.  King made himself available to do the Lord’s will. Now he was looking forward.  Was he talking ab out his eternal life in what now seems like prophetic fashion, or was he talking about God working out his purposes on earth?  No matter: King was confident in God’s power to work out his will. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”  An assassins bullet took King’s life the next day…but the movement went on.

Can evangelicals recover this confidence in God’s power–not just his wrath against their enemies but in his ability to work out his purposes for good?  Can they recover hope? The historian Christopher Lasch  once wrote this: “Hope does not demand a belief in progress.  It demands a belief in justice: a conviction that the wicker will suffer, that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things is not flouted with impunity.  Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to most who lack it. ”  I saw this kind of hope in every place we visited on our trip.  It was not mere optimism that things would get better if only we could elect the right candidates.  Rather, it was a view of this world, together with an understanding of the world to come, forged amid suffering and pain.  Not everyone would make it to the mountaintop on this side of eternity , but God’s purposes would be worked out, and eventually they would be able to understand these purposes–if not in this life, surely in the world to come.  The people in the movement understood that laws, social programs, even local and voluntary action, would only get them so far.   Something deeper was needed.

There was something kingdom-oriented going on in these Southern cities.  I saw this kind of hope  in the eyes of Rip Patton as he sat with us in the Nashville Public Library and explained why (and how) he had such a “good time” singing while incarcerated with other freedom riders in Parchman Prison in Jackson, Mississippi.  I heard this kind of hop e in the voice of Rutha Mae Harris as she led us in “This Little Light of Mine” and “Ain’t Gonna Turn Me’ Round” from the front of the sanctuary  of the Old Mount Zion Baptist Church in Albany.  As I walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge  in Selma, Alabama, I wondered if I could ever muster the courage of John Lewis and Joanne Bland as they marched into the fact of terror on Bloody Sunday.  Such audacity requires hope.

Humility

It is nonsensical  to talk about the civil rights movement in terms of political power, because even at the height of the movement’s influence, African Americans did not possess much political power.  Yes, the movement had its leaders, and they did have time in the national spotlight.  But when movement leaders entered the “court,” they were usually there to speak truth to the king, not to flatter him.  Martin Luther King Jr., for example, was willing to break with Lyndon Johnson when he disagreed with him on the Vietnam War, even if it meant losing access to the most powerful man on earth.

Most of all, though, the civil rights movement was shaped by people of humble means who lived ordinary lives in ordinary neighborhoods.  Many of them never expected to step onto a national stage or receive credit for leading the greatest social movement in American history.  These ordinary men and women fought injustice wherever God had placed them.   And they offer us a beautiful illustration of what James Davison Hunter has called “faithful presence”:

A theology of faithful presence first calls Christians to attend to the people and places that they experience directly….the call of faithful presence gives priority to what is right in front of us–community, the neighborhood, and the city, and the people in which these constituted….It is here, through the joys, sufferings, hopes, disappointments, concerns, desires, and worries of people with whom we are in long-term and close relation–family, neighbors, co-workers, and community–where we find authenticity as a body of believers.  It is here where we learn forgiveness and humility, practice kindness, hospitality, and charity, grow in patience and wisdom, and become clothed in compassion, gentleness, and joy….

I thought about Hunter’s words as I stood in the hot Selma sun and listened to Joanne Bland explain to use the significance of a small and crumbling patch of pavement in a playground behind Brown AME church.  This was the exact spot, she told us, where the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches began.  For Bland, who was raised in the housing complex across the street from the church, this was a sacred place.

The humility on display during the civil  rights movement was just as countercultural then as it is now.  This is usually the case with nonviolent protests.  Those who participated thought of themselves not as individuals but as part of a movement larger than themselves.  Rip Patton was a twenty-one-year old  music major at  Tennessee State University when he met Jim Lawson in 1959.  Lawson trained Patton (and others) in nonviolent protest.  Soon Patton found himself seated at a lunch counter in downtown Nashville, where he would be spit on, punched , and covered in ketchup, mustard, salt, and water.  Patton did not retaliate because he had been educated in the spiritual discipline necessary for a situation like this.  Martin Luther King Jr. was leading a political and social movement, something akin to a religious revival.

The civil rights movement never spoke the language of hate or resentment.  In fact, its Christian leaders saw that all human beings were made in the image of God and sinners in need of God’s redemptive love.  Many in the movement practiced with theologian Reinhold Niebuhr described as “the spiritual discipline against resentment.”  They saw that those who retaliated violently or with anger against injustice were only propagating injustices of their own  .   Instead, the spiritual discipline against resentment unleashed a different kind of power–the power of the cross and the resurrection.   This kind of power could provide comfort amid suffering and a faithful gospel witness in the world.   The Mississippi voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said it best: ” The white man’s afraid he’ll be treated like he’s been treating the Negroes, but I couldn’t carry that much hate.  It wouldn’t  have solved any problems for me to hate white because they hate me.  Oh, there’s so much hate!  Only God has kept the Negro sane.”

HISTORY

As we saw in chapter  5, many African Americans find American nostalgia troubling because they recognize that there is little in our nation’s history to yearn for.  The leaders of the civil rights movement could not make appeals to a golden age.  They could only look forward with hope….When they did turn to the past, it was often an appeal to ideals such as liberty, freedom, or justice, ideals written down in our nation’s sacred documents that had yet to be applied to them completely.  History was a means by which they challenged white Americans to collectively come face to face with the moral contradiction at the heart of the republic. As King said in his April 1968 sermon in Memphis, “All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.'”  As I listened to to the veterans of the civil rights movement tell their stories, I was surprised how often I heard them describe America as a “Christian nation.”  But this was not the Christian nationalist nostalgia of David Barton, Robert Jeffress, or the court evangelicals.  It was a gesture of what they hoped the United States might become….

The early civil rights movement needed its leaders to have a working knowledge of American history, but these leaders did not use the past as fodder for a national reclamation project.  They knew there was little to reclaim.  Instead, they used the past as a means of  moving forward in hope and calling the church and the nation to live up to the principles they were built on.  While many white Americans today succumb to the narcissism that tells them that their place in the story of the nation is not worth serious reflection, King and his followers had a clear-eyed understanding of the past.  They desperately wanted to be grafted into this imperfect but hopeful story, and to contribute their gifts and talents to the writing of future chapters of that story.

The Cornel West–Robert George Road Show Discuss MLK

West and George

Robert George and Cornel West at Arizona State University, January 2018 (Creative Commons)

Check out Adelle Banks’s piece at Religion News Service on a recent event sponsored by Baylor University’s program in Washington D.C.  I am encouraged when I hear conservative Robert George and progressive Cornel West working together to find common ground.  At this event they discussed the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Here is a taste of Banks’s article:

West said he’s had to answer critics who can’t understand how he travels around the country with George: “I say, ‘Have you met him? Have you sat down and talked with him?’”

They sat onstage, comfortably taking turns highlighting how King had crossed divides in search of his goal of a “beloved community.”

West and George agree that the emphasis on King should be on his role as a Christian minister, though his civil rights activism is also grounded in his being a product of the black community.

“The last thing we ever want to do with Brother Martin is view him as some isolated icon on a pedestal to be viewed in a museum,” said West, professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University. “He’s a wave in an ocean, a tradition of a people for 400 years so deeply hated, but taught the world so much about love and how to love.”

Read the rest here.

If you enjoyed this piece, you may also enjoy West and George discussing the liberal arts and the purpose of education:

 

University of Virginia Theologian Charles Marsh is Quoted at the Royal Wedding

Beloved CommunityBishop Michael Curry, the head of the American Episcopal Church, preached the sermon at the royal wedding this morning.  During the sermon Curry quoted Charles Marsh’s book The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice from the Civil Rights Movement to Today.

Ruth Graham has it covered here.  A taste:

The scripture he quoted included the Old Testament prophet Amos, a favorite passage of King’s: “Let justice roll down like a mighty stream, and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook.” The lyrics he chose included the black American spiritual “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” which he introduced by noting that slaves in the American South had sung it “even in the midst their captivity.” The official transcript of Curry’s sermon does not include the mention of slavery, suggesting he was riffing just a bit—not unusual for a preacher, but notable considering Curry riffed in the direction of referencing slavery in front of the queen, not to mention hundreds of wealthy British dignitaries, some of whose family fortunes surely were built on the backs of enslaved people.

The scholars he referenced included the 20th-century Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whom the Vatican has long held at arm’s length. Curry also quoted Charles Marsh, a religious studies professor at the University of Virginia. “Jesus had founded the most revolutionary movement in human history,” Curry quotes Marsh writing, “a movement built on the unconditional love of God for the world and the mandate to live that love.” The quote comes from Marsh’s 2005 book, The Beloved Community, which traces the influence of faith on the Civil Rights movement and argues that the spiritual underpinnings of that movement can serve as a source of moral energy today.

Marsh’s book is essentially an argument for the enduring power of progressive Christianity. So was Curry’s sermon, whose central argument was the world-transforming power of love….

Read the entire piece here.

My Review of Gary Dorrien’s *Breaking White Supremacy*

DorrienThe Christian Century just published my review of Gary Dorrien’s Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel.

Here is a taste:

Pick up any general survey of Christianity in America and turn to the section on the social gospel. It is likely that the narrative will be dominated by the names of two white pastors: Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschen­busch. Along with some other lesser-known white social gospel Prot­estants, they sought to Christianize America through reforms, government programs, and voluntary societies de­signed to address poverty, disease, immorality, and all forms of injustice resulting from industrialization, urbanization, and immigration.

It is highly unlikely that the names Mordecai Johnson, Benjamin Mays, or Howard Thurman appear alongside Gladden and Rauschenbusch in the typical textbook narrative. But according to Gary Dorrien, these leaders of the black social gospel movement represented an intellectual tradition in American Chris­tianity that was “more accomplished and influential” than the white movement led by Gladden and Rauschenbusch.

Read the rest here.

Remembering and “Misremembering” 1968

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Robert Greene II, a graduate student at the University of South Carolina, has a nice piece at Religion & Politics on the way we remember the careers and tragic deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.  Both were assassinated in 1968.

A taste:

Public memory is how a nation remembers its past. It’s shown through acts of commemoration such as the dedication of statues, presidential proclamations, or national holidays. Memory can bind together the citizens of a nation through symbolism and pageantry. Conversely, it can also gloss over the legacies of important figures and moments. The deaths of King and Kennedy loom large in any misremembering of 1968. Though the two men had minimal interaction in their lifetimes, and what relationship they had was complicated, their assassinations during the same year marked a turning point. They occurred just prior to the rise of a staunch conservative ascendancy and liberal division that have continued to saturate American politics. King’s death left a hole in the moral leadership of the American left, while Kennedy’s death was the end of the optimism that defined the “Camelot”-style politics of the 1960s. For Americans to properly talk about what the nation is missing without those two figures would mean to fully reckon with the myriad of ways the United States has failed to uphold King’s dream and has ignored the words of Robert Kennedy’s campaign for president.

Read the entire piece here.

Someone Give the Governor of Alabama a History Lesson

We need historians more than ever.  Yesterday Kay Ivey, the Republican governor of Alabama, released this campaign ad:

Ivey says “we can’t change or erase our history.”  She is correct.  But just because a particular community has a past doesn’t necessary mean that the celebration of that past is the best way forward.  Sometimes our encounters with the past should shame us.

She adds: “To get where we are going, we need to understand where we’ve been.”  Again, this is true.  But I don’t think she means that we need to “understand where we’ve been” because “where we’ve been” was racist and because it was racist we must repudiate it. Let’s remember that we are talking about monuments to white racists here.  Ivey is telling us that the best way for Alabama to move forward is to celebrate a history of slavery, racism, Jim Crow, and segregation.  Ivey’s usable past is a past of white supremacy.

After the ad was criticized, Ivey defended it.  According to The Hill, she called out “folks in Washington” and “out of state liberals” for trying to take away Alabama’s Confederate monuments.

Here we go again with the “outside agitators” coming into racist Alabama and trying to change their precious way life.  This is what they said about the so-called “carpetbaggers in the 1860s and 1870s and Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the 1950s and 1960s.

Someone get Governor Ivey a copy of King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

Cornel West and Robert George Discuss MLK’s Legacy

West and George

From the Wall Street Journal:

In his own time Martin Luther King Jr. was regarded by some as a rabble rouser and even a communist sympathizer, and by others as an Uncle Tom and a “house Negro.” In demanding an immediate end to segregation and Jim Crow, he was too radical for some. In eschewing violence and hatred of anyone—including even the defenders of racial injustice—he was too “tame” and forgiving for others.

Fifty years after his death, he is almost universally revered. Though he did not fit perfectly into any ideological camp during his lifetime, he is claimed today by people across the political spectrum. His words are often invoked to defend causes that he himself did not live to form an opinion about—from opposition to affirmative action to advocacy of same-sex marriage. Everybody, it seems, thinks King would be on their side.

We can and should do our best to think about the implications of his basic principles, but often reasonable people of goodwill disagree about precisely what those implications are. The two of us disagree on some of these issues, though we continue to listen to and engage each other. This has deepened our understanding of King’s principles—especially his focus on the equal dignity and sanctity inherent to every human life.

One of us invokes “the radical King” in criticizing empire, capitalism, and white supremacy. The other recalls King’s principles in defending the unborn, Down syndrome and other disabled people, the frail elderly, and every life.

We both believe King would demand that more be done to fight poverty. But no one can say for sure how he would design and apportion the roles of government, at the national or state levels, and civil-society institutions in the effort. Nor would he claim that whatever policies he happened to favor were infallibly correct. In engaging with each other as fellow citizens, neither should we. At the same time, reasonable difference must never be an excuse for complacency or inaction in the face of evils such as poverty and injustice.

Still, in judging and acting, we must avoid sinning against King’s legacy by facilely claiming him for whatever policies we favor. A more fitting attitude, one consistent with what was truly radical about King, is to imagine him as a critic: “If Martin Luther King would be on the other side of where I happen to be on this question—why?”

This self-critical stance honors King by recognizing the centrality of his Christian faith to his work and witness. Today we treat King as a saint, but he recognized himself as a sinner. He struggled to live uprightly but often failed and stood in need of forgiveness. King was taught by the tradition of African-American Christianity, which shaped him in every dimension of his being, that all human beings are fallen. But he was also taught that all are fashioned in the image and likeness of God and are therefore worthy of being loved and treated justly—justice being what love looks like in public.

Read the rest here.

West and George disagree on a lot, but they also have a lot in common.  Over the years they have modeled civil dialogue and friendship. Click here to see West and George discuss the liberal arts.

MLK’s Funeral

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Garment workers at the Abe Schrader Shop in NYC listen to MLK’s funeral (Wikipedia Commons)

James Jeffrey’s piece at Public Radio International has some moving photos from the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr.   Check them out here.

The funeral was held on April 8, 1968.