Martin Luther King, Jr. worked within a context. As many have noted, the black church was central to his work. It wasn’t, however, the black church in isolation.
Dr. King began his campaign with a $1 million dollar war chest and built on a foundation — law, nonviolence education, business, religion — laid by people like Septima Clark. Mrs. Clark was a teacher with a Master’s Degree from Hampton who led citizenship and literacy workshops that were crucial for voting and civil rights. People like Charles Hamilton Houston, dean of the Howard Law School and a member of the Harvard Law Review who trained lawyers like Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley.
Where are our leaders who are committed to a big vision, the thankless and the long haul? To being challenged and critiqued?
When Rev. King worked in coalitions, he came from a position of strength. He had intellectual capital, resources, expertise, a trained team and a disciplined, committed following. Ad hoc coalitions and arm chair activism just aren’t the same.
I wonder what Rev. King would have thought about today’s black church. It’s often criticized for being out of touch. There is some merit to that argument. But then I thought about several leaders of my own church. It’s a different day.
One minister mentioned that it was surprising that black people lead in health problems including HIV/AIDS. My godmother who was 83 at the time asked, where has that minister been? Another didn’t know basic facts about the city where we live, worship and work.
The many critics who have said the church is unresponsive? They have to consider that there is a good chance that the pastoral staff simply doesn’t know. Whether willfully or by accident.
Churches who don’t hold business meetings, withhold or massage information? The Montgomery Improvement Association and the early SCLC look like pristine mountain waters by comparison.
Ignorance, denial, disengagement. Rev. King would never have …
An emphasis on finances and economic development has exposed many churches to fraud. And at least in Los Angeles, there is a wave of churches that were once debt free, strong and proud now bankrupt or hobbled by debt.
Church as a source of information for empowerment? Check. Actually doing deals? Not so much. We desperately need transparency, expertise and checks and balances. Bring back the sober elders and deacons of yesteryear. In churches where no one can check the pastor, disaster is always lurking. Dr. King needed them. So do we. Does it turn off younger people? Maybe. But what if they have no church to go to at all in the end?
I fear that the black church uncritically embracing conservative groups like Focus on the Family, which seem to sometimes have a subtle anti intellectual bias, has been disastrous for African Americans. Education has been the way up and out for us. It’s hard to believe in a globally competitive world that that will change.
Dr. King was committed to thoughtful analysis that allowed for ambiguity and contradiction. (http://www.carnegiecouncil.org/resources/articles_papers_reports/4960.html) He believed in flexibility and knew there could be several ways to solve a problem. We had better get back to that. Demonizing sinners and opponents has worked so well for African Americans.
So Happy Birthday Dr. King. And thank you Coretta Scott King, Stevie Wonder, Harry Belafonte and the foot soldiers who made this day possible.