Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church
The day I graduated from high school near Atlanta, I began a summer job digging ditches in order to save money for college. Our work crew consisted of four muscular black men and one skinny white kid-me. The white foreman dropped us off, parked his truck under a nearby shade tree, lit a cigarette, and began reading the sports pages. Although we started working just after sunrise, the air was already hot and muggy.
I dug in with gusto, rhythmically jamming my pointed shovel into the ground, pressing my foot down on the metal lip with a wiggle that loosened the dirt, then tossing it onto a pile a few feet away.Thunk, swish; thunk, swish. The four black men stood around watching this flurry of movement in amazement, as if I had invented an exotic new sport. Finally one of them said to me, "Son, you gon' kill yo'self like that. You won't last till water break. Watch me." He pushed the shovel blade into the ground, stepped on it, then paused to take a drag on a cigarette, leaning against the shovel handle. A minute or two later, he nonchalantly threw the dirt onto the pile I had made, set the shovel down, and took a few more drags. The other three men followed suit.
Anxious to impress the foreman on my first day, I compromised with a pace somewhere between theirs and mine. By water break, at ten o'clock, I knew without a doubt that my mentor had been right. My T-shirt was drenched in sweat and streaked with red Georgia clay. The joints in my feet hurt. It felt as if professional wrestlers had been jumping up and down on my arms. My back ached like an old man's, and I walked hunchbacked to the truck for water.
We lined up at the rear of the truck, taking turns to drink from a metal container that had been sitting in the hot sun all morning, which made the water even hotter than the air temperature. A single battered tin cup hung from a chain beside the water can and the men took turns drinking from it. Suddenly the foreman spied me in his rearview mirror. "Boy, whatcha doin'?" he said. "Come up here."
I dutifully reported to the truck cab. "Get in," he said, in a tone of disgust. "You ain't supposed to drink that stuff. That's nigger water! Here, I brung us some." He loosened the cap of a glass-lined thermos and poured ice water into a paper cup.
I was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1949, five years before the Supreme Court ruled in favor of integrated schools, fifteen years before a civil rights law forced restaurants and motels to serve all races, and sixteen years before the U.S. Congress guaranteed minorities the right to vote. Gas stations in those days had three labeled rest rooms: White Women, White Men, and Colored. Department stores had two drinking fountains, White and Colored. Many museums had one day a week reserved for Coloreds; otherwise they were barred entrance. When I rode the Atlanta buses, workmen and maids sat dutifully in the rear section and were required by law to give up their seats if white riders wanted them. In neighboring Alabama, blacks had to enter the front door to pay the driver, then exit the bus and walk outside back to the rear door. Mean-spirited drivers sometimes shut the rear doors early and drove off, stranding black customers who had already paid their fare. site/1/2006-1501
My grandfather told us stories about the old days when his grandfather owned a plantation full of slaves, many of whom took the last name "Yancey" after emancipation. We would sometimes try to pick out the black Yanceys by their first names in the phone book. As a teenager he had seen bodies swinging from lampposts during the race riot of 1906, when angry whites lynched nearly fifty black men after rumors of a sexual insult. He used to take my father and uncles on visits to the Confederate Veterans' Home where they would listen to the old men reminisce about "the War of Northern Aggression," their term for the Civil War. (One of those uncles would later pack up and move his family to Australia after the courts forced schools to integrate.) Each Christmas, as we sat at my grandmother's Southern feast of vegetables, mashed potatoes, biscuits, and ham and turkey, black employees from my grandfather's truck-body shop would appear at the back door, knocking and then standing there awkwardly until he dropped a few silver dollars into their hands as a Christmas bonus.
We lived in apartheid conditions. Although Atlanta had almost as many black
residents as whites, we ate in different restaurants, played in different parks,
and attended different schools and churches. Sometimes I would see signs that
read, "No dogs or Coloreds allowed." By law black people could not serve on
juries, send children to white public schools, use a whites-only bathroom, sleep
in a white motel, sit on the main floor of a movie theater, swim in a white
swimming pool. (Because resorts in Alabama did not serve black people, Martin
Luther King, Jr., spent his wedding night in the closest thing to a public
accommodation available, a funeral parlor owned by family friends.)
Maddox's museum sold souvenir pickax handles resembling those used by policemen to beat civil rights demonstrators. He offered three sizes, Daddy, Mama, and Junior, and I bought the Junior size with money earned from my paper route. It looked like a policeman's nightstick, and I kept it in my closet. (Maddox, a folk hero to Southern whites, went on to become Georgia's governor in 1967, and then because he could not succeed himself he got elected lieutenant governor and from that office campaigned as a candidate for president of the United States on the American Independent Party ticket in 1972.)
Black people gave us someone to look down on, someone to mock and feel superior to. My family moved every year or two when the rent went up, and lived sometimes in government projects and sometimes in trailer parks. Sociologically, we may have qualified as "poor white trash." But at least we were white.
Nowadays, historians who look back on the 1950s and 1960s in the South declare it a time ripe for social change. That depends on your perspective. Among my family, friends, neighbors, and church members, the time was most unripe. We viewed ourselves as under siege, our entire way of life threatened by outside agitators.
When the principal announced over the intercom system that President John F. Kennedy had been shot, some students in my high school stood and cheered. As the president who had proposed civil rights legislation and then backed it up by sending federal marshals to make the University of Mississippi accept its first black student, James Meredith, Kennedy represented an intolerable threat to our comfortable enclave of racism. Until then, Republicans like Eisenhower and Nixon had been the civil rights enemies; Democrats were beholden to Southern "Dixiecrats," who controlled three fourths of the congressional committee chairs and ruled in the Senate by filibuster. With Kennedy, though, an enemy of the South lived in the White House.
My high school was named for a Confederate general, John B. Gordon. In 1966, when I graduated from that school, no black student had ever set foot on campus. Black families had moved into the neighborhood, and whites on all sides were fleeing to Stone Mountain and points east, yet no black parents dared enroll their children in our school. We all believed then, and I have no reason to disbelieve now, that Malcolm, a short kid with a crew cut who wore metal taps on his shoes and loved to pick fights, singlehandedly kept them away. Reputed to be the nephew of the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, Malcolm had put out the word that the first black student in our school would go home in a hearse.
The Ku Klux Klan had an almost mystical hold on our imaginations. I wrote school papers about it. It was an invisible army, we were taught, a last line of defense to preserve the Christian purity of the South. I remember as a child watching a funeral procession for a Dragon or Wizard or some such bigwig in the KKK. Caught trying to turn left across traffic, we had to wait until the entire motorcade passed. Dozens, scores, hundreds of cars slid past us, each one driven by a figure wearing a silky white or crimson robe and a pointed hood with slits cut out for eyes. The day was hot, and the drivers' sunburned elbows jutted from open car windows at acute angles. Who were they, these druids reincarnate? They could be anyone-the corner gas station attendant, a church deacon, my uncle-no one knew for sure. The next day's Atlanta Journal reported that the funeral procession had been five miles long.
I remember also a Fourth of July rally held at a fairgrounds racetrack. Sponsors had brought together such luminaries as George Wallace and a national officer of the ultra-conservative John Birch Society, as well as Atlanta's own Lester Maddox. We waved tiny rebel flags and cheered as the speakers denounced Washington for trampling states' rights. A group of twenty black men, showing bravery such as I had never before seen, attended that rally, sitting in a conspicuous dark clump in the bleachers, not participating, just observing.
I saw no one give a signal, but shortly after a rousing rendition of "Dixie," hooded Klansmen arose from the crowd and began an ominous climb down those bleachers, surrounding the cluster of black men. The blacks stood and huddled together, looking around in desperation, but there was no escape route. At last, frantic, a few of them started climbing a thirty-foot chain fence designed to protect spectators from the race cars, and the Klansmen scrambled to catch them. The speaker's bullhorn fell silent, and we all turned to watch the Klansmen pry loose the clinging bodies, as though removing prey from a trap. They began beating them with fists and with ax handles like the ones Lester Maddox sold. After a time, a few Georgia State Patrol officers lazily made their way over and made the Klansmen stop.
Although nearly four decades have passed, I can still hear the crowd's throaty rebel yells, the victims' pleas, and the crunch of the Klansmen's bare fists against flesh. And with much shame I still recall the adolescent thrill I felt-my first experience of the mob instinct-mixed in with horror, as I watched that scene transpire.
Today I feel shame, remorse, and also repentance. It took years for God to
break the stranglehold of blatant racism in me-I wonder if any of us gets free
of its more subtle forms-and I now see that sin as one of the most poisonous,
with perhaps the most toxic societal effects. When experts discuss the
underclass in urban America, they blame in turn drugs, changing values, systemic
poverty, and the breakdown of the nuclear family. Sometimes I wonder if all
those problems are consequences of a deeper, underlying cause: our centuries-old
sin of racism.
These memories of racism from my youth all came flooding back as I read biographies of Martin Luther King, Jr., the Atlanta citizen whom Lester Maddox had labeled "an enemy of our country." In successive years, two long and incisive accounts of the King years won Pulitzer Prizes: David Garrow's Bearing the Cross in 1987 and Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters in 1989. Garrow's text runs for 723 pages and Branch's for 1,004, and the hours I pored over them gave me an odd sense resembling, but not exactly, déjà vu.
Although I was traveling familiar terrain-Selma, Montgomery, Albany, Atlanta, Birmingham, St. Augustine, Jackson-everything about the landscape had changed. The historians presented these names, and I too now viewed them, as the battlefields of a courageous moral struggle. When I grew up in the South of the 1960s, however, they represented a geography of siege. Troublemakers from the North, carpetbagging students, rabbis, and ministers protected by federal agents, were invading our territory. And the person leading the march in each of those cities was our number-one public enemy, a native of my own Atlanta, whom the Atlanta Journal regularly accused of "inciting riot in the name of justice." Folks in my church had their own name for him: Martin Lucifer Coon.
King's appropriation of the Christian gospel galled us most. He was, after all, an ordained minister, and even my fundamentalist church had to acknowledge the integrity of his father, Daddy King, respected pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. We had our ways of resolving that cognitive dissonance, of course. We said that the younger King was a card-carrying Communist, a Marxist agent who merely posed as a minister. (Had not Khrushchev memorized the four gospels as a youth and Stalin attended seminary?) George Wallace cited FBI sources to accuse King of belonging to more Communist-front organizations than any man in the United States.
We said that Daddy King had raised Martin right, but that the liberal Crozer Seminary up north had polluted his mind. He followed the social gospel, if any gospel at all. (We never asked ourselves what conservative seminaries might have accepted Martin's application back then.) And when the rumors about King's sexual dalliances surfaced, the case against him was closed. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a fraud, aposeur, not a true Christian.
Recent biographies of King deal with these accusations in exhaustive detail. Most of the rumors trace back to leaks from FBI agents, for J. Edgar Hoover had a personal vendetta against King and, with Robert Kennedy's authorization, placed wiretaps on King and his associates. President John Kennedy personally ordered King to break off contact with two close advisers because of alleged Communist ties. King himself never had Communist sympathies, although he sometimes tired of the injustices under democratic capitalism. True, some of his trusted advisers had belonged to the Communist Party years before, but King had friends across the political spectrum. He tended to judge people on the basis of their commitment to civil rights, and by that measure leftists had far more to offer than, say, Southern clergymen.
During King's time, the FBI looked with suspicion on white people who mixed easily with friends from a variety of races and economic groups. These were potential Communists. If only Christians, and not Communists, had fit that FBI profile, I now lament. Instead, we Southern Christians were, by and large, the foes of justice, and the truly Communist press overseas was trumpeting the story of segregation in "Christian America."
As for the other charge, accusations of King's sexual immorality reflect historical fact, not rumors. The FBI taped numerous episodes in King's hotel rooms, and thanks to the Freedom of Information Act historians can study the actual transcripts. Ralph Abernathy has revealed that King carried on extramarital affairs up until the eve of his death. One FBI agent (William Sullivan, who rose to become assistant director of the Bureau) sent King some of their recordings along with a note urging him to commit suicide: "You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation."
Besides the sexual immorality, King has been accused of plagiarism as well. He inserted into his graduate school thesis, his writings, and sometimes his speeches, long sections lifted without credit from other sources. Frankly, I find it easier to understand King's sexual failings, a sin in which he has much company, than his plagiarism. A master of riveting prose, why did he feel the need to steal someone else's?
Relentless pressures buffeted King from all sides. He faced death threats from segregationists as well as the FBI. A bomb went off in his home. Black churches were burning every week in the South. His volunteers were being threatened, beaten, and jailed, and some of them were dying. Often his Southern Christian Leadership Conference had to skip payroll, and his most effective fund-raiser was one of the advisers President Kennedy had demanded that he fire. Newspapers from the Atlanta Journal to the New York Times condemned his methods. The NAACP criticized him for being too radical, while SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) accused him of timidity. Student demonstrators in a dozen cities pleaded with him to accompany them to jail; volunteers in Mississippi urged him to come risk his life with them. Should he concentrate on voting rights or on segregated restaurants? What unjust laws should he violate? What about defying court orders? Should he stick to civil rights or expand his focus to poverty? What about the war in Vietnam?
I better understand now the pressures that King faced his entire adult life, pressures that surely contributed to his failures. King's moral weaknesses provide a convenient excuse for anyone who wants to avoid his message, and because of those weaknesses some Christians still discount the genuineness of his faith. (These Christians might want to review the list of outstanding people of faith in Hebrews 11, a list which includes such moral deviants as Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Rahab, Samson, and David.) I certainly once dismissed him. Yet now I can hardly read a page from King's life, or a paragraph from his speeches, without sensing the centrality of his Christian conviction. I own a collection of his sermon tapes, and every time I listen to them I am swept up in the sheer power of his gospel-based message, delivered with an eloquence that has never been matched.
David Garrow builds his book around the scene of King's supernatural call, early in his career. "It was the most important night of his life," writes Garrow, "the one he always would think back to in future years when the pressures again seemed to be too great." King had been thrust into civil rights leadership in Montgomery, Alabama, after Rosa Parks had made her brave decision not to move to the back of the bus. The black community formed a new organization to lead a bus boycott and by default chose as a compromise candidate for its leadership the new minister in town, King, who at age twenty-six looked "more like a boy than a man." Growing up in middle-class surroundings, with a kind of inherited religion from his preacher father, he hardly felt qualified to lead a great moral crusade.
As soon as King's leadership of the movement was announced, the threats from the Klan began. Not only the Klan-within days King was arrested for driving 30 miles per hour in a 25 mph zone and thrown into the Montgomery city jail. The following night King, shaken by his first jail experience, sat up in his kitchen wondering if he could take it anymore. Should he resign? It was around midnight. He felt agitated, and full of fear. A few minutes before, the phone had rung. "Nigger, we are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren't out of this town in three days, we're going to blow your brains out, and blow up your house."
King sat staring at an untouched cup of coffee and tried to think of a way
out, a way to quietly surrender leadership and resume the serene life of
scholarship he had planned. In the next room lay his wife Coretta, already
asleep, along with their newborn daughter Yolanda. Here is how King remembers it
in a sermon he preached:
And I sat at that table thinking about that little girl and thinking about the fact that she could be taken away from me any minute. And I started thinking about a dedicated, devoted and loyal wife, who was over there asleep. . . . And I got to the point that I couldn't take it anymore. I was weak. . . .
And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me, and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed down over that cup of coffee. I never will forget it. . . . I prayed a prayer, and I prayed out loud that night. I said, "Lord, I'm down here trying to do what's right. I think I'm right. I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I'm weak now. I'm faltering. I'm losing my courage."
. . . And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, "Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world." . . . I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.
(From sermon tape)
Three nights later, as promised, a bomb exploded on the front porch of King's home, filling the house with smoke and broken glass but injuring no one. King took it calmly: "My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it."
David Garrow weaves his narrative around that "visitation" at the kitchen table, returning to it again and again, because King drew strength from that memory at every hinge moment in his life. For him it became the bedrock of personal faith, an anointing from God for a particular task. As I read accounts of King's life, and his many references to that night, I am struck by the simplicity of the message he received: "I am with you." Those words convey an underlying theme of the Bible: the Immanuel ("God with us") presence of God. Over the next thirteen years of his career, King had other religious experiences, and many moments of crisis, but none to match what happened that night at his kitchen table. This one word sufficed.
Meanwhile, we in the Deep South viewed Martin Luther King, Jr., through a different religious lens. During my adolescence I attended two different churches. The first, a Baptist church with more than a thousand members, took pride in its identity as a "Bible-loving church where the folks are friendly," and in its support of 105 foreign missionaries, whose prayer cards were pinned to a wall-sized map of the world at the rear of the sanctuary. That church was one of the main watering holes for famous evangelical speakers. I learned the Bible there. It had a loose affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention, a denomination formed in 1845 when Northern abolitionists decided that slave owners were unfit to be missionaries and the Southerners separated in protest. Even Southern Baptists were too liberal for most of us, though, which is why we maintained only a loose affiliation. Some of them smoked tobacco, and over fierce objections the convention had even endorsed recent civil rights legislation.
In the 1960s, as black students sought to integrate Atlanta's churches, our
deacon board mobilized lookout squads who took turns patrolling the entrances
lest any black "troublemakers" appear. I still have one of the cards the deacons
printed up to give to any civil rights demonstrators who might appear:
Believing the motives of your group to be ulterior and foreign to the teaching of God's word, we cannot extend a welcome to you and respectfully request you to leave the premises quietly. Scripture does NOT teach 'the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God.' He is the Creator of all, but only the Father of those who have been regenerated.
If any one of you is here with a sincere desire to know Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord, we shall be glad to deal individually with you from the Word of God.
(Unanimous Statement of Pastor and Deacons, August 1960)
After the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, our church founded a private school as a haven for whites, expressly banning all black students. A few members left the church in protest when the kindergarten refused to admit the daughter of a black Bible professor, but most approved of the decision. A year later the church board rejected a Carver Bible Institute student for membership (his name was Tony Evans and he went on to become a prominent pastor and speaker based in Dallas, Texas).
The next church I attended was smaller, more fundamentalist, and more overtly racist (the one whose "burial" I recently attended). There I learned the theological basis for racism. The pastor taught that the Hebrew word Ham meant "burnt black," making Noah's son Ham the father of Negro races, and that in a curse Noah had consigned him to life as a lowly servant (Genesis 9). That is when I heard my pastor explain why black people make such good waiters and household servants. He acted out their moves on the platform, swiveling his hips as if to avoid a table, pretending to balance a tray of food above his head, and we all laughed at his antics. "The colored waiter is good at that job because that's the job God destined him for in the curse of Ham," he said. No one bothered to point out that the curse was actually pronounced on Noah's grandson Canaan, not Ham.
Around that same time, Mississippi's Baptist Record published an article arguing that God meant for whites to rule over blacks because "a race whose mentality averages on borderline idiocy" is obviously "bereft of any divine blessing." If anyone questioned such racist doctrine, pastors pulled out the trump card of miscegenation, or mixing of the races, which some speculated was the sin that had prompted God to destroy the world in Noah's day. A single question, "Do you want your daughter bringing home a black boyfriend?" silenced all arguments about race.
You can still read such twisted theology today, on Internet sites sponsored by white supremacists. Far fewer people accept it now, though, and one of the main reasons-for me, especially-is the prophetic role of Martin Luther King, Jr. It took a man of his moral force to awaken churches from what Reinhold Niebuhr called "the sin of triviality" to confront the broader claims of the gospel.
The word prophet comes to mind because King, like those Old Testament figures, endeavored to change an entire nation through a straightforward moral appeal. The passion and intensity of the biblical prophets has long fascinated me, for most of them faced an audience every bit as stubborn, prejudiced, and cantankerous as I was during my teenage years. With what moral lever can one move a whole nation? Studying the prophets, I note that virtually all of them followed a two-pronged approach.
First, they gave a short-range view of what God requires now. In the Old Testament, this usually consisted of an exhortation to simple acts of faithfulness. Rebuild the Temple. Purify your marriages. Help the poor. Destroy idols and put God first. The prophets never stopped there, however. They also gave a long-range view to respond to the people's deepest questions. How can we believe that God loves us in the face of so much suffering? How can we believe in a just God when the world seems ruled by a conspiracy of evil? Prophets answered such questions by reminding their audience of who God is, and by painting a glowing picture of a future kingdom of righteousness.
In true prophetic tradition, Martin Luther King, Jr., used that same two-pronged approach. For him, the short-range view called for one thing above all else: nonviolence. King matriculated to seminary the year that Mahatma Gandhi died, and from him, not from Christians in the United States, he gained a vision of how to change a nation. Gandhi, said King, was "the first person in history to live the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals." Somehow Gandhi had found a way to mobilize a movement around Jesus' lofty principles of hope and love and nonviolence.
Like Gandhi, King looked to the Sermon on the Mount as a textbook for
When I went to Montgomery as a pastor, I had not the slightest idea that I would later become involved in a crisis in which nonviolent resistance would be applicable. I neither started the protest nor suggested it. I simply responded to the call of the people for a spokesman. When the protest began, my mind, consciously or unconsciously, was driven back to the Sermon on the Mount, with its sublime teachings on love, and to the Gandhian method of nonviolent resistance.
(From Stride Toward Freedom)
King traveled with his wife to India in 1959 to observe firsthand the impact of a nonviolent revolution. "I left India," he reported, "more convinced than ever before that nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom." For other models, he looked back to the biblical prophet Daniel and his three friends, who disobeyed the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, and to the early Christians, who faced hungry lions rather than submit to unjust laws of the Roman Empire. As he later articulated, "One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly and with a willingness to accept the penalty."
The civil rights movement gave King many opportunities to test his nonviolent philosophy. A deranged woman stabbed him in New York, her weapon lodging a fraction of an inch from his aorta. A white man in Birmingham rushed the platform and pummeled King with his fists. ("Don't touch him!" King cried to his supporters, who surrounded the attacker. "We have to pray for him.") Southern sheriffs delighted in roughing up their famous adversary as they handcuffed him and hauled him away in paddy wagons. They clubbed his marchers with nightsticks, sicced German shepherd dogs on them, blasted them with water cannons that cracked ribs and sent bodies sprawling on the streets.
Half a century later, we may lose sight of how excruciatingly difficult it was for King to maintain his nonviolent stance. After you've been hit on the head with a policeman's nightstick for the dozenth time, and received yet another jolt from a jailer's cattle prod, and can point to no progress at all resulting from your suffering, you begin to question the effectiveness of meek submission. Many blacks abandoned King over this issue. Students especially, the intrepid heroes of the Freedom Rides through Alabama and Mississippi, drifted toward Black Power rhetoric after their colleagues kept getting murdered. SNCC, an organization with nonviolence in its name, moved toward armed revolt and derided King as "de Lawd." In Chicago, Black Power advocates booed King off the stage at a mass rally.
As riots broke out in places like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Harlem, King traveled from city to city trying to cool tempers and reminding demonstrators that moral change is not accomplished through immoral means. He had learned that principle from the Sermon on the Mount, and almost all his speeches reiterated the message. "Christianity," he said, "has always insisted that the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear. To be a Christian one must take up his cross, with all its difficulties and agonizing and tension-packed content, and carry it until that very cross leaves its mark upon us and redeems us to that more excellent way which comes only through suffering."
King clung to nonviolence because he profoundly believed that only a movement based on love could keep the oppressed from becoming a mirror image of their oppressors. He wanted to change the hearts of the white people, yes, but in a way that did not in the process harden the hearts of the blacks he was leading toward freedom. Nonviolence, he believed, "will save the Negro from seeking to substitute one tyranny for another."
When he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, King referred yet again to the principles he had learned from the Sermon on the Mount: "When the years have rolled past and when the blazing light of truth is focused on this marvelous age in which we live, men and women will know and children will be taught that we have a finer land, a better people, a more noble civilization, because these humble children of God were willing to 'suffer for righteousness' sake.' "
Historians tell of King's tense encounter with Chicago's tough mayor Richard
J. Daley. The movement supporters were feeling betrayed, believing they had
reached an understanding with Daley that would permit them to march through
Chicago with police protection in exchange for calling off a boycott. But Daley
had double-crossed them by obtaining a court order banning further marches. As
was his style, King sat silent through most of the contentious meeting, letting
others air their views. The mood was hostile, and it looked as if the meeting
would break apart in bitterness. King finally spoke up, with what one onlooker
described as a "grand and quiet and careful and calming eloquence."
Let me say that if you are tired of demonstrations, I am tired of demonstrating. I am tired of the threat of death. I want to live. I don't want to be a martyr. And there are moments when I doubt if I am going to make it through. I am tired of getting hit, tired of being beaten, tired of going to jail. But the important thing is not how tired I am; the important thing is to get rid of the conditions that lead us to march.
Now, gentlemen, you know we don't have much. We don't have much money. We don't really have much education, and we don't have political power. We have only our bodies and you are asking us to give up the one thing that we have when you say, "Don't march."
(From Bearing the Cross)
King's speech changed the mood of the meeting, and ultimately led to a new agreement with Mayor Daley.
We have only our bodies, King said, and in the end that was what brought the civil rights movement the victory it had been seeking so long. When I was in high school, the same students who cheered the news of President Kennedy's assassination also cheered King's televised encounters with Southern sheriffs, police dogs, and water cannons. Little did we know that by doing so we were playing directly into King's strategy. He deliberately sought out individuals like Sheriff Bull Connor and stage-managed scenes of confrontation, accepting jail, beatings, and other brutalities, because he believed a complacent nation would rally around his cause only when they saw the evil of racism manifest in its ugliest extreme.
In that goal, King succeeded spectacularly. A judge in DeKalb County, where I lived, required King to wear not only handcuffs but also leg and arm shackles in his courtroom as he sentenced him to four months at hard labor on a state road gang for driving a car registered in Alabama not Georgia. A Houston jury sentenced an SNCC volunteer to thirty years in prison for giving one marijuana cigarette to an undercover policeman. Mississippi courts jailed voter registration volunteers for "inciting a riot" when their homes and churches were shot up and bombed by the Klan. A bomb killed four little girls in Sunday School at a church in Birmingham.
"I have to do this-to expose myself-to bring this hate into the open," King explained after being knocked to the ground by a rock that struck him in the right temple. His own family sometimes questioned his wisdom. "Well, you didn't get this nonviolence from me," Daddy King said as his son faced yet another arrest in Birmingham. "You must have got it from your mama."
By exposing evil in cold light, King was attempting to provoke a national response of moral outrage-a concept my friends and I were not equipped to understand. Many historians point to one event as the single moment in which the movement attained at last a critical mass of support for the cause of civil rights. It occurred on a bridge outside Selma, Alabama, when Sheriff Jim Clark turned his policemen loose on unarmed black demonstrators. The mounted troopers spurred their horses at a gallop into the crowd of marchers, flailing away with their nightsticks, cracking heads and driving bodies to the ground. As whites on the sidelines whooped and cheered, the troopers shot tear gas into the panicked crowd. Most Americans got their first glimpse of the scene when ABC television interrupted its Sunday movie, Judgment at Nuremberg, to show footage. What the viewers saw broadcast from Alabama bore a horrifying resemblance to what they were watching about Nazi Germany. Eight days later President Lyndon Johnson submitted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to the U.S. Congress.
We have only our bodies, King said. Not once in his career did an official of Selma or Jackson or Albany or Cicero respond to his entreaties by saying, "You know, Dr. King, you're right. We are racists, and these discriminatory laws are unjust, unconstitutional, unbiblical, and just plain wrong. We're sorry. We'll repent and start over." Not once. It took more than King's prophetic words to cut through the moral calluses of bigots like me. It took the bodies of the marchers in Selma and all the other places; it took King's own body in Memphis. Martin Luther King, Jr., did many things wrong, but one thing he did right. Against all odds, against all instincts of self-preservation, he stayed true to the short view. He did not strike back. Where others called for revenge, he called for love and forgiveness.
King recorded his struggle with forgiveness in "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," an amazing document scrawled on the margins of newspapers and on toilet paper, then smuggled out of his cell by friends. Outside the jail, Southern pastors were denouncing him as a Communist, mobs were yelling "Hang the nigger!" and policemen were threatening his unarmed supporters. In such circumstances King had to fast for several days in order to achieve the spiritual discipline necessary for him to forgive his enemies. As he explained, "We love men not because we like them, nor because their ways appeal to us, nor even because they possess some kind of divine spark. We love every man because God loves him."
The civil rights workers, however, needed something more than short-range admonitions toward love and nonviolence. They needed the long view of faith that the abuse they were taking would contribute to ultimate triumph. Already convinced of the justness of their cause, they wanted someone to lift their sights beyond the long string of disheartening failures. We now look back on the civil rights movement as a steady tidal surge toward victory. At the time, facing daily confrontations with the power structure and under constant intimidation from policemen, judges, and even the FBI, civil rights workers had no assurance of victory. We forget how many nights they spent in rank Southern jails. Most of the time the present looked impossibly bleak, the future even bleaker.
To such demoralized troops, King offered a vision of the world held in the
hands of a just God. In 1961 he was performing the same role as had Old
Testament prophets in 500 b.c.: he was raising the sights of God's people to the
permanent things. Already, at that early date, students were getting restless,
and here is what King told those students:
There is something in this student movement which says to us, that we shall overcome. Before the victory is won some may have to get scarred up, but we shall overcome. Before the victory of brotherhood is achieved, some will maybe face physical death, but we shall overcome. Before the victory is won, some will lose jobs, some will be called communists, and reds, merely because they believe in brotherhood, some will be dismissed as dangerous rabblerousers and agitators merely because they're standing up for what is right, but we shall overcome. That is the basis of this movement, and as I like to say, there is something in this universe that justifies Carlyle in saying that no lie can live forever. We shall overcome because there is something in this universe which justifies William Cullen Bryant in saying truth crushed to earth shall rise again. We shall overcome because there is something in this universe that justifies James Russell Lowell in saying, truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown, standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.
(From The New Yorker, April 6, 1987)
For King, the long view meant remembering that, no matter how things appear at any given moment, God reigns. Later, when the famous march from Selma finally made it to the state capitol, the building which once served as the capitol of the Confederacy and from which the rebel flag still flew, King addressed those scarred and weary marchers from the steps:
I know that you are asking today, "How long will it take?" I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth pressed to earth will rise again.
How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.
How long? Not long, because you still reap what you sow.
How long? Not long, because the arm of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
How long? Not long, 'cause mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword. His truth is marching on.
He has sounded forth the trumpets that shall never call retreat. He is lifting up the hearts of man before His judgment seat. Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer him. Be jubilant, my feet. Our God is marching on.
(From The New Yorker, April 6, 1987)
Speeches like these filled the movement with hope when there was little else to cling to. They are what inspired one seventy-two-year-old female volunteer to say with a weary smile, "My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest."
A prophet calls us to daily acts of obedience, regardless of personal cost,
regardless of whether we feel successful or rewarded. And a prophet also reminds
us that no failure, no suffering, no discouragement is final for the God who
stands within the shadows, keeping watch above His own. A prophet who can convey
both those messages with power just may change the world. While Martin Luther
King, Jr., lived on earth, I, his neighbor, did not listen to what he said. I
was quick to pounce on his flaws, and slow to recognize my own sin. But because
he stayed faithful, in the short view by offering his body as a target but never
as a weapon, and in the long view by holding before us his dream, of a new
kingdom of peace and justice and love, he became a prophet for me, the
unlikeliest of followers.
In 1974, ten years after the civil rights bill that spawned such conflict, I made my first visit to Mississippi, the heart of Southern resistance. I had moved away from the South and was trying to put my past behind me. Living in Chicago, I worked as the editor of Campus Life, a Christian magazine for young people, which took a progressive stance on social issues. Thanks to people like Dr. King, I saw that the Southern white church, my church, had stubbornly defended evil and not good. For a time I blamed God, and not the church, but my reading of the Old Testament prophets and of Jesus finally convinced me that God had always stood on the side of the oppressed, and for justice. I vowed, as a writer, to try and make amends.
I had heard about healing taking place between the races, especially in my home city of Atlanta, but wondered just how much had truly changed since my childhood. To find out, I accepted the invitation of John Perkins to visit the small town (population three thousand) of Mendenhall, thirty-two miles south of Jackson.
Perkins, a black minister, had lived through the worst nightmares of the civil rights movement. He knew most of the principal players on the Mississippi scene: Robert Moses, a soft-spoken philosophy student from Harvard, one of King's first volunteers, who went on to lead the SNCC voter registration drive in Mississippi, gaining almost legendary status for his calm persistence in the face of beatings, imprisonment, and dynamite and rifle attacks; Fannie Lou Hamer, "the lady who know how to sing," one of twenty children of an illiterate cotton picker, who signed on to register black voters in Sunflower County, Mississippi, and for her efforts was beaten senseless by local sheriffs, sustaining injuries from which she died, but not before leading an alternate delegation from Mississippi to the 1964 Democratic Convention; Medgar Evers, the NAACP field secretary who had first invited King to Mississippi and who was gunned down by an assassin in his driveway, just as his wife and daughters were running out to greet him.
I heard these stories and many more from John Perkins during the week I spent in Mississippi. I slept on a fold-out sofa in the living room of his home, which meant I got very little sleep since Perkins went to bed late and rose long before sunrise to read his Bible and pore over newspapers and journals piled on his kitchen table. But it also meant we had much time to talk, over coffee at the table, in his car as we drove through the cotton fields, in his office down the street. He told me of his own boyhood, of the night his older brother got shot dead by a policeman for making too much noise while standing in line in front of the Colored entrance of a movie theater, of his struggle to educate himself, and of his stint in the Army and his vow never to return to Mississippi.
Perkins kept that vow for a while, beginning a successful career as a union worker in greater Los Angeles. An unexpected conversion to Christianity, which he had always considered "the white man's religion," derailed that career. Unable to get out of his mind the disadvantaged neighbors he had left behind in Mississippi, he gradually felt a call from God to return, in June 1960.
At the time, most local ministers of Perkins's evangelical persuasion stuck
to preaching the gospel and left human needs to social workers and government
agencies. Perkins did start a church and Bible institute, and launched a radio
program called "Voice of Calvary." Yet he also accepted the broader mission
proclaimed by Jesus:
To preach the gospel to the poor
To heal the brokenhearted
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind
To set at liberty those who are oppressed
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
Adopting that mission, Perkins began a rural health clinic, a co-op store, a vocational training center, a recreational center for Mendenhall's youth, a tutoring program and school, a housing program. Soon a few acres on unpaved streets on the wrong side of the tracks became a bustling center of services for the poor black families of Simpson County. Perkins tirelessly traveled the country, seeking financial support from white evangelicals-"I must have been the first person to integrate several hundred homes I stayed in," he says-and soliciting volunteer nurses, doctors, and teachers to serve a term in Mendenhall. With his stirring personal story, his plainspoken style, and his commitment to justice, Perkins captured the attention of evangelicals across the nation. He also captured the attention of local authorities.
White Mississippians did not mind the social services, but they resented the steady influx of Northerners, especially when Perkins began to lead a voter registration campaign. At the time only fifty black voters were registered in Simpson County, though blacks comprised 40 percent of the population. Such a ratio was typical: only 7,000 of Mississippi's 450,000 blacks were registered, due to the many legal barriers. Voters had to pay a poll tax, beyond the reach of most blacks. They had to interpret arcane sections of the Mississippi constitution to the satisfaction of all-white county registrars. As federal courts began dismantling these barriers, the state erected new ones: a requirement that names and addresses of applicants be printed in local newspapers (a convenience for harassment by the KKK, employers, and white neighbors), and a provision that allowed any registered voter in the county to challenge an applicant on grounds of character.
Perkins and his volunteers kept plugging away, eventually registering 2,300 voters in their county. When he led an economic boycott of downtown Mendenhall in protest of police brutality, however, he crossed a line. After a street demonstration in February 1970, a white staff member named Doug Huemmer and nineteen black student protesters from Tougaloo College were stopped by the Mississippi Highway Patrol and taken to a jail in nearby Brandon, the domain of a notorious sheriff. Huemmer called Perkins, who drove immediately to Brandon, walking right into a trap.
A dozen highway patrolmen and local policemen determined to teach Perkins and Huemmer a lesson. "You're not in Simpson County anymore," one of them yelled. "You're in Rankin County, where we know how to treat smart niggers." They began kicking Perkins and hitting him with their fists-on the head, in the kidneys, in the groin-and stomping on his legs. He went unconscious, and when he came to in a pool of blood they poured moonshine whiskey over the sores on his head and pounded him again. They made him mop up his own blood. They put a fork up his nose and reamed it until the blood ran out, then did the same to his throat. Then they booked him on charges of contributing to the delinquency of minors. While they were taking his fingerprints, one of the officers put a gun to Perkins's head and pulled the trigger. The empty chamber clicked and everyone laughed at the cruel joke, then they beat him into unconsciousness again.
Perkins survived that night, although not long afterward doctors had to remove two thirds of his stomach as a result of the injuries. Over the next eighteen months of recuperation, he reconsidered his call from God to return to Mississippi. Was he really bringing good news to the people of Mendenhall? Black residents had more opportunities now, to be sure, but his efforts had hardened white attitudes. Reconciliation seemed more remote than ever. While recovering, he read books by Malcolm X, Rap Brown, and Eldridge Cleaver, all of whom had given up on the gospel and its message of reconciliation. Yet he could not deny that his own ministry had attracted some compassionate white volunteers: Doug Huemmer, who had suffered the very same treatment in the Brandon jail; Al Oethinger, who had come all the way from Germany to help out after reading books by Dr. King; Vera Schwartz, a missionary nurse who had joined the health center in Mendenhall instead of returning to Africa.
"That time was without a doubt my deepest crisis of faith," Perkins told me as we drove the back roads of Simpson and Rankin Counties, past the infamous jail and courthouse four years after the incident. "It was time for me to decide if I really did believe what I'd so often professed, that only in the love of Christ, not in power of violence, is there any hope for me or the world. I began to see how hate could destroy me. In the end, I had to agree with Dr. King that God wanted us to return good for evil, not evil for evil. 'Love your enemy,' Jesus said. And I determined to do it. It's a profound, mysterious truth, Jesus' concept of love overpowering hate. I may not see it in my lifetime. But I know it's true. Because on that bed, full of bruises and stitches, God made it true in me. I got a transfusion of hope. I couldn't give up. We were just getting underway in Mendenhall."
At that moment of crisis, Perkins came to believe with King that "Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear; only love can do that. Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illumines it."
Over the next decades, Perkins moved to Los Angeles, where he founded a
national organization for community development based on what he had learned in
Mendenhall, then returned to Mississippi to spearhead a movement for racial
reconciliation. He sometimes appears now with Thomas Tarrants, a KKK operative
who served time for murder, got converted in prison, and now pastors a
multiracial church in Washington, D.C.
When I visited Mendenhall in 1974, a sign welcomed me to town: "White people unite, defeat Jew/Communist race mixers." I asked John Perkins to show me an example of racism in action. "When I write your story, people are going to tell me everything has changed," I said. "The civil rights bill was ten years ago. Is there still overt discrimination?"
Perkins thought for a minute and suddenly his face brightened: "I know-let's integrate the Revolving Table restaurant!" We drove to an elegant restaurant famous for its mechanized Lazy Susan, which slowly revolves in the center of a huge table, bearing platters of black-eyed peas, squash, cabbage, sweet potatoes, chicken and dumplings, and other Southern favorites. When we sat down, the white diners all glared at us and then, as if at a prearranged signal, got up and moved away to smaller tables. Except for Perkins and me, no one in the restaurant spoke for the next hour. I ate uneasily, glancing over my shoulder, expecting a nightstick. When I paid the bill and commented on the delicious food, the hostess took my money without responding or even looking me in the eye. I had the tiniest glimpse of the hostility Perkins had lived with all his life.
Two months later, when I published my article on John Perkins, the Mississippi branch of the Christian organization I worked for passed a resolution demanding that I be fired for stirring up bad memories. "Things have changed now," they said. "Why dig up the past?"
Why indeed? Almost three decades have passed since my Mississippi visit, and the great civil rights victories are nearing the half-century milestone. We live in a new century now, a new millennium even, and much has indeed changed. Nowadays, black patrons in Mississippi can eat wherever they want, drink from any water fountain, sleep in any motel. The victories that Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, Bob Moses, John Perkins, and many others fought for were won-legally, at least-although they waited a full century after the Emancipation Proclamation. Progressive Southerners from Georgia, Arkansas, and Texas have served as president. Black visitors can attend white churches at will, though they seldom want to. All these dreams seemed unattainable to Martin Luther King, Jr., just four decades ago. As a token of the momentous changes, the nation now pauses each year to honor King himself, object of so much controversy during his lifetime, on a national holiday. He is the only African-American, the only minister, and indeed the only individual American so honored.
The victories did not come easily, and most did not come at all during his lifetime. Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, an uneasy rival of Dr. King, kidded him in 1963 that his methods had not achieved a single victory for integration in Albany or Birmingham. "In fact, Martin, if you have desegregated anything by your efforts, kindly enlighten me."
"Well," King replied, "I guess about the only thing I've desegregated so far is a few human hearts." He knew that the ultimate victory must be won there. Laws could prevent white people from lynching blacks, but no law could require races to forgive or love one another. The human heart, not the courtroom, was his supreme battleground. As one of those changed hearts, I would have to agree.
King had developed a sophisticated strategy of war fought with grace, not guns. He countered violence with nonviolence and hatred with love. King's associate Andrew Young remembers those turbulent days as a time when they sought to save "black men's bodies and white men's souls." Their real goal, King said, was not to defeat the white man but "to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor and challenge his false sense of superiority. . . . The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community." And that is what Martin Luther King, Jr., finally set into motion, even in born racists like me.
Despite the moral and social fallout from racism, somehow the nation did stay together, and people of all colors eventually joined the democratic process in America, even in the South. For some years now, Atlanta has elected African-American mayors, including civil rights leader Andrew Young. Even Selma, Alabama, has a black mayor, who in the year 2000 defeated the mayor who had held office since the notorious march. And old "Segregation forever!" George Wallace appeared in his wheelchair before the black leadership of Alabama to apologize for his past behavior, an apology he repeated on statewide television. When Wallace went on to apologize to the Baptist church in Montgomery where King had launched the movement, the leaders who came to offer him forgiveness included Coretta Scott King, Jesse Jackson, and the brother of the murdered Medgar Evers.
In 1995 the Southern Baptist Convention, 150 years after forming over the issue of slavery, formally repented of their long-term support of racism. (A pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church responded, "Finally we have a response to Martin Luther King's 'Letter from Birmingham City Jail' in 1963. Too bad it's thirty-two years too late.")
Even the large Baptist church I attended in my childhood learned to repent. When I attended a service several years ago, I was shocked to find only a few hundred worshipers scattered in the large sanctuary that, in my childhood, used to be packed with 1,500. The church seemed cursed. Finally the pastor, a classmate of mine from childhood, took the unusual step of scheduling a service of repentance. In advance of the service he wrote to Tony Evans and to the shunned Bible professor, asking their forgiveness. Then publicly, painfully, with African-American leaders present, he recounted the sin of racism as it had been practiced by the church in the past. He repented, and received their forgiveness. Although a burden seemed to lift from the congregation after that service, it was not sufficient to save the church. A few years later the white congregation moved out to the suburbs, and today a rousing African-American congregation, the Wings of Faith, fills the building and rattles its windows once more.
Observers of the South sometimes speak of it as "Christ-haunted." Perhaps they should speak of it as "race-haunted" as well. All of us, white or black, who grew up in those days bear scars. Some black people, like John Perkins and Bob Moses, bear physical scars. We whites bear spiritual scars. Although I have not lived in the South for thirty years, I live with its memories, like the medieval murderers who were forced to wear the corpses of their victims strapped to their backs. The entire nation bears scars. Who would suggest that we have achieved anything like "the beloved community" King longed for?
I have visited King's old church in Atlanta, Ebenezer Baptist, and sat in tears as I saw through new eyes the moral center of the black community that gave them strength to fight against bigots like me. I was on the outside in those days, cracking jokes, spreading rumors, helping sustain a system of evil. Inside the church, and for a time only inside the church, the black community stood tall. My eyes, blinded by bigotry, could not see the Kingdom of God at work.
A few years before his death, King was asked about mistakes he had made. He replied, "Well, the most pervasive mistake I have made was in believing that because our cause was just, we could be sure that the white ministers of the South, once their Christian consciences were challenged, would rise to our aid. I felt that white ministers would take our cause to the white power structures. I ended up, of course, chastened and disillusioned. As our movement unfolded, and direct appeals were made to white ministers, most folded their hands-and some even took stands against us."
I once wrote a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., in the conservative journal ChristianityToday. I spoke of him as a prophet, using some of the same words I have used here. I heard from many readers, some supportive and some angry. Two of the most thoughtful letters came from former college presidents, one from the president of Wheaton College, where I attended, and one from the president of the Bible college I also attended. "How can you call Dr. King a prophet?" both asked. A great moral leader, yes, an important agent of social change, certainly, but can a plagiarizer and womanizer be a Christian prophet? They balked at applying that label to a man with such obvious flaws.
I wrote detailed replies to both men, mentioning some of the flawed leaders God clearly used in biblical times. Solomon offers a good example: we honor his proverbs but not his lifestyle. Indeed, we are all in peril if the flawed messenger invalidates the message. I also cited King's powerful sermons, and mentioned that King required his volunteers to sign a strict pledge that committed them to daily meditation on Jesus' teaching, regular prayer, and walking and talking with love. And then the irony struck me. I had titled my article "Confessions of a Racist," yet almost all the letters focused on King's errors and not my own. How in the world could they question King's right to speak for God and not mine, given my spotted past?
Many of the Christians who still balk at seeing Martin Luther King, Jr., as God's instrument have no problem worshiping in churches that once portrayed him as the enemy, that opposed his ideals, and that either directly or indirectly perpetuated the sin of racism he fought with his own body. We saw the mote in his eye but not the beams in our own.
Only one thing haunts me more than the sins of my past: What sins am I blind to today? It took the greatness of Martin Luther King, Jr., to awaken the conscience of a nation in the last century. What keeps us in this new century from realizing the beloved community of justice, peace, and love for which King fought and died? On the wrong side of what issues does the church stubbornly plant its feet today? As King used to say, the presence of injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
Occasionally, grace and power descend on great and flawed leaders to convict
and lead us on. In the end, it was not King's humanitarianism that got through
to me, nor his Gandhian example of nonviolent resistance, nor his personal
sacrifices, inspiring as those may be. It was his grounding in the Christian
gospel that finally made me conscious of the beam in my eye and forced me to
attend to the message he was proclaiming. Because he kept quoting Jesus,
eventually I had to listen. The church may not always get it right-and it may
take centuries or even millennia for its eyes to open-but when it does, God's
own love and forgiveness flow down like a stream of living water. Alas, by the
time I tasted of that stream, King was already dead.
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's 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 any man. "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
(From King's last speech, in Memphis, the night before his assassination.)