The story of Martin Luther King Jr. and the movement he led is our greatest national treasure. It is beautiful, searing, inspiring, and traumatic. It resounds with soaring rhetoric and ends in nightmarish despair, but does not end. To me, this story surpasses all other American stories because it is the passion narrative of our time. It crashed through my lower-class white world in my youth and put me on a very unlikely vocational path. Yet this greatest of American stories no longer makes its own way, partly because of the way it was told for many years.
The civil rights movement led by King refuted America’s self-congratulatory story about its freedom-loving goodness, instead offering Americans an opportunity to confess and atone for the ongoing legacy of their nation’s original sins. Today we need the witness of King more than ever, for America never built a culture of atonement, and today our nation is wracked by consequences of the very problems that King devoted his life to ending.
I grew up in a poor, semi-rural section of Michigan, Bay County, in a nominally Catholic family. My parents moved there after growing up in similarly poor areas of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where my father took abuse for his Cree heritage. At the age of twenty he acquired passably white status by moving south, to the Lower Peninsula. When he looked in the mirror he saw an inferior caste, so the most loving thing he could imagine as a parent was to claim for his children all the white privilege he could get. Today my father is proudly, even aggressively, Native American, and I appreciate the changes in American society that made it possible for him to reclaim his racial identity. None of it would have happened without the civil rights movement. But I am a child of the white working class, having never experienced or claimed any other racial identity, and this nation has never had a breakthrough for racial justice that did not set off a mighty backlash from my group. We are in one such backlash now.
In my youth I got to Mass sporadically with my family and sometimes hitched a ride with neighbors – just enough to be caught by the figure of the crucified Jesus. This God-figure who responded to evil with self-sacrificing love provided a religious ideal, a sign of transcendence that broke through my everyday horizon of lower-class culture and the next game. Then the stunning witness of the civil rights movement similarly broke through, eventually melding in my thought and feeling with the cross of Christ.
I came of age in the climactic years of the movement. The Selma demonstration made a searing impression on me. My teachers described America as the world’s greatest nation in every way that mattered. But the civil rights movement taught a very different lesson. King became the formative figure for me long before I understood much of anything about politics or religion. Then King was assassinated, and he became more than merely the leader of a justice movement. Like Jesus whom he followed, King had died for us – died as an exemplar of Jesus’ way of peacemaking and justice-making. That was the extent of my religious worldview when I squeaked into college, mostly to play sports. In my twenties and early thirties I served as a community organizer and Episcopal priest; at thirty-five I became an academic; today I stand on the same bedrock as when I started.
After King was gone he left an incomparable legacy and an immense void. For fifteen years, racial justice activists and ecumenical leaders called for a national recognition of his legacy: a Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday. King’s reputation among white Americans climbed ever higher, putting a holiday in reach. People who had spurned him while he lived now claimed to admire him; many “forgot” having reviled him. The campaign for a holiday lost a House of Representatives vote in 1979 but won a veto-proof majority in Congress in 1983, compelling President Reagan to sign it.
The campaign fixed on the imagery in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I organized ecumenical MLK observances during those years, and chafed at the rules governing them. The rules domesticated King in order to win for him the iconic status he deserved. The memory of King taking the struggle to Chicago, railing against capitalism and the Vietnam War, emphasizing what was true in the Black Power movement, and organizing a Poor People’s Campaign faded into an unthreatening idealism. King became safe and ethereal, registering as a noble moralist stripped of his Christian language of sin, redemption, and prophetic justice. The civil rights movement was reduced to a reform movement for individual opportunity. It became hard to remember why, or even that, King had been the most hated person in America during his lifetime. (For example: a 1966 Gallup poll found that almost two thirds of Americans viewed King unfavorably, with 44 percent viewing him “highly unfavorably.”)
King keenly understood that he was hated, and why. The point of his protest campaigns was never merely to attain the next reform, although he always had a reform objective. White America needed to confront its hostility toward black Americans and its sense of racial entitlement. It needed to build up a culture of atonement for 246 years of chattel slavery and 100 years of racial segregation. No mere political reform movement would ever make that happen.
King was steeped in the black social gospel – a tradition of neo-abolitionist theology and politics that played a leading role in every racial justice organization of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was “neo-abolitionist” because the founders of the black social gospel were compelled to ask what a new abolition would be, now that Reconstruction had been abandoned, racial caste had been codified, and racial terrorism enforced the caste system. The founders included Baptist cleric and educator William Simmons, African Methodist Episcopal Zion cleric Alexander Walters, anti-lynching crusader Ida Wells-Barnett, and African Methodist Episcopal cleric Reverdy Ransom. They taught that churches had to apply the ethical commands of biblical faith to the political struggle against the tyranny of white supremacism. Their successors included all four of King’s chief social gospel mentors: Baptist clerics Benjamin E. Mays, J. Pius Barbour, Mordecai Johnson, and Howard Thurman. King held these mentors in mind when he stepped into the spotlight on December 3, 1955.
King had grown up in a middle-class black Baptist church in Atlanta, where his father was the pastor. He went to Morehouse College at the age of fifteen, moved to Crozer Seminary and Boston University, took over as pastor of Dexter Church in Montgomery while writing his doctoral dissertation, and had a freshly minted PhD when Rosa Parks got arrested on December 1, 1955. King had no activist experience before lightning struck in Montgomery. He had to rely on what he believed and on what his mentors had modeled to him.
God is the personal ground of the infinite value of human personality. This two-sided credo had a negative corollary that confirmed King’s deepest feeling: If the worth of personality is the ultimate value in life, America’s racial caste system was evil on distinctly Christian grounds. Evil is precisely that which degrades personality, the sacred dignity of every human life – the very thing that America’s racial caste system was designed to destroy. King selected Boston University because its commitment to personal idealism supported his core convictions more powerfully than any other philosophy. Then his ministry in Montgomery put him in position to be swept away by a movement whirlwind.
It was the movement that made King, not the other way around. But the movement that carried this young minister to prominence in December 1955 would not have caught fire without him. Montgomery mounted a bus boycott because three organizers had been laying the groundwork for months: Jo-Ann Robinson, president of the Montgomery Women’s Political Council; Rosa Parks, secretary of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP; and E. D. Nixon, a former NAACP leader. They were ready to challenge bus segregation when Parks provided the perfect test case by getting arrested. But somebody had to speak for the boycott, and it turned out to be the newcomer who was willing to risk his life. History turned in a moment. King had twenty minutes to plan what he would say that night. He had one guiding thought as he headed to Holt Street Church: I have to be militant and moderate at the same time.
“We are here,” he told the crowd gathered there, “because first and foremost we are American citizens…, because of our love for democracy, because of our deep-seated belief that democracy, transformed from thin paper to thick action, is the greatest form of government on earth.”
But American democracy was grievously distorted. Blacks in America were humiliated and oppressed simply for being black. “That’s right!” the crowd shouted. King moved to Parks, lauding her “boundless” integrity and devotion to Jesus. Then he started a justice run: “And you know, my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression.”
Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love.
The crowd erupted in thundering applause, and King kept the run going. People get tired of being “plunged across the abyss of humiliation” and driven into the “bleakness of nagging despair” and “pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life’s July.” Black Americans were tired of all that, yet they did not advocate violence and never had. “Repeat that!” the crowd called. King stressed that black Americans were Christians who followed the gospel. He tacked back to the right to protest in a democracy. The Klan and the White Citizens Councils terrorized to oppress, while black Americans opposed oppression in the spirit of Jesus. King declared, “There will be no crosses burned at any bus stops in Montgomery.” No whites would be extracted from their homes and “taken out on some distant road and lynched for not cooperating.” The Montgomery protest sought merely to right a wrong. That got him started on a second justice run. If they were wrong, so were the Supreme Court, the Constitution, Jesus, and God Almighty: “If we are wrong, justice is a lie. Love has no meaning. And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
King moved from quoting the prophet Amos to a call for solidarity: “We must stick together.” The movement needed unity and courage, the one reinforcing the other. He risked a trade union analogy, observing that when working people got “trampled over by capitalistic power,” there was nothing wrong with pulling together to demand their rights. “We, the disinherited of this land, we who have been oppressed so long, are tired of going through the long night of captivity. And now we are reaching out for the daybreak of freedom and justice and equality.”
The crowd erupted again at the stunning image of daybreak. King implored the crowd to “keep God in the forefront.” But love, he said, is only one side of the Christian faith; the other side is justice. Christians live in the spirit of love divine and employ the tools of divine justice. They use the tools of persuasion and the tools of coercion. If they pulled together, history would be written in Montgomery.
King ran out of metaphors, halting his run, but the Holt Street Address perfectly distilled what became his message: “Justice,” he said, “is love correcting that which revolts against love.” Soon this message was his trademark, helping him to personally link the fledgling, theatrical, church-based movement for racial justice in the South to the established, institutional, mostly secular movement in the North.
Black pacifist activist Bayard Rustin rushed to Montgomery from New York, befriended King, and introduced him to his fellow Old Left activists Stanley Levison and Ella Baker. After the boycott succeeded, all four were determined to build a new organization that would kindle many Montgomerys. The NAACP still had a role to play, but it was consumed with marching through the courts. The Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) protested bravely and doggedly, but failed to spark a movement. It was top-heavy with white middle-class intellectuals who gave an impression of patronizing earnestness. Another version of CORE was not what the movement needed.
The new organization would be exclusively black, but its goal was to redeem the entire nation. In December 1956 King told a celebratory gathering at Holt Street Church that the goal was to “awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor and challenge his false sense of superiority,” not to defeat white oppressors: “The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of a beloved community.” The following month King, Birmingham minister Fred Shuttlesworth, and Tallahassee minister C. K. Steele called for a conference to establish a new organization. By August 1957 it had a name, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and a motto: “To Redeem the Soul of America.”
King rightly figured that the movement needed a church-based organization dedicated to spreading protest wildfire. He stocked SCLC with powerhouse preachers who deferred to him; meanwhile he relied on Rustin and Levison for ghostwriting, networking, and counsel and hired Baker to run the office. Rustin, Levison, and Baker were veterans of the Old Left who fondly remembered how the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) used strikes, boycotts, and marches to make gains for economic justice. They were also chastened by this history, because the Old Left strategy of fusing anti-racism with trade unions and socialism had failed in the 1930s and ’40s. Racism cut deeper than class solidarity.
Thus the three movement veterans were strategic in basing SCLC on the black church, notwithstanding that Rustin was a socialist Quaker, Levison was a Jewish former Communist, and Baker’s experience of the black church made her averse to authoritarian preachers. SCLC embraced nonviolence and touted its political nonpartisanship, although Baker accepted nonviolence merely as a tactic, not as the faith it was for Rustin and King. The SCLC ministers and board members did not like King’s reliance on Rustin and Levison, but King was emphatic about needing them.
King took in stride that Rustin, Levison, and Baker had Old Left backgrounds. It was one of God’s mysteries why so many Communists and so few white liberals had cared about black Americans. King had become a democratic socialist in seminary, embracing the conviction of Johnson, Barbour, social gospel icon Walter Rauschenbusch, and Boston University ethicist Walter Muelder that political democracy cannot survive without economic democracy. Then he joined a racial justice movement in which he took for granted that former Communists had major roles to play. Rustin and Levison believed that black Americans would never be free as long as large numbers of whites were oppressed by poverty. Capitalism, they said, played different roles in the struggles for racial justice in the North and South. In the North, blacks suffered primarily from the predatory logic of capitalism. In the South, blacks suffered primarily from the tyranny of racial caste, and capitalism was an ally in the struggle against racial tyranny because the capitalist class experienced the demands of racial caste as a needless waste. In the North, fighting for economic justice was intrinsic to the struggle for racial justice; in the South, economic justice was secondary for the time being. King agreed with Rustin and Levison that the Northern and Southern struggles had to be waged differently and that the struggle for economic justice for all Americans was indispensable in the long run.
For a while, SCLC floundered, even as King became famous. King shuddered to imagine the violence that Gandhian protests might unleash; thus he talked about Gandhian disruption without causing any. It took the student sit-in explosion of 1960 and the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to push King into committing Gandhian disruption. King accepted that he needed to raise hell in the most hostile cities he could find. SCLC became a fire-alarm outfit relying on street theater and heroic agitation. It was long on charismatic ministers who disdained grassroots organizing and did not treat their female allies with the respect they deserved. King was no exception on either count; thus Baker left SCLC to advise SNCC. But both organizations stoked the fires of protest in ways that King’s leadership inspired.
From 1960 until his death, King got more radical and angry in every succeeding year. The great demonstration in Birmingham was excruciatingly slow to catch fire, saved by marching children, and nearly ended disastrously, but it caused President Kennedy to propose the Civil Rights Act. In 1964, interviewer Alex Haley asked King what his biggest mistake had been, and King said it was overestimating the spiritual integrity of white ministers. The essence of Pauline Christianity, he observed, is to rejoice at being deemed worthy to suffer for the divine good: “The projection of a social gospel, in my opinion, is the true witness of a Christian life.” The white ministers who opposed or sat out the civil rights movement failed the Pauline test. Haley asked if black churches did better at projecting a social gospel; King hedged on “no,” adding that black churches dealt with daily threats to their existence that whites couldn’t imagine, so there was no basis for comparison.
We domesticated King in order to win for him the iconic status he deserves.
Haley noted that many derided King as a sell-out; King said he took for granted that criticism came with the job. Haley asked how one could be militant and nonviolent at the same time; King said it was a necessity, like being simultaneously realistic and idealistic. Nonviolence is a sword that heals. Haley observed that many whites believed the civil rights movement had gone far enough and should cease. King’s response was blistering: “Why do white people seem to find it so difficult to understand that the Negro is sick and tired of having reluctantly parceled out to him those rights and privileges which all others receive upon birth or entry in America? I never cease to wonder at the amazing presumption of much of white society, assuming that they have the right to bargain with the Negro for his freedom. This continued arrogant ladling out of pieces of the rights of citizenship has begun to generate a fury in the Negro.”
The fury in King showed through to anyone willing to see it. He said that white Americans were abysmally ignorant about the true state of American society, and three variations of this ignorance were politically significant. One group was stridently bigoted and reactionary; a second group, public officials, did not fathom the harm they caused, because it never occurred to them to actually listen to black people; a third group was the hardest to take, “enlightened” types who admonished in patronizing fashion about proceeding gradually.
Selma nearly ended disastrously, but the march to Montgomery led to the Voting Rights Act. Then King took the struggle North, where very few of his lieutenants wanted to go. King said that racism in the North was structural and threefold in every city. Segregated housing led to segregated schools, and segregated housing and schools handicapped black Americans in the job market. So he pushed into Chicago, where SCLC was battered viciously. This time the battering was not redeemed by any national legislative breakthrough, just before Watts and Detroit exploded in rioting.
Until 1966, King refused to say that white Americans never intended to integrate their schools and neighborhoods. Then he got pelted with rocks in Chicago and said it scathingly, cautioning the SCLC: “The white man literally sought to annihilate the Indian. If you look through the history of the world this very seldom happened.” This, he said, was what black Americans were up against. Until 1967, King refused to describe white America’s reaction to the civil rights movement as a backlash, because that kind of language suggested that he was to blame, racism was increasing, and the movement had backfired. Then King wrote his last book, Where Do We Go from Here, and he stopped imploring against calling it a backlash. The backlash was terribly real, he said, but what mattered was the cause: America’s age-old racial hostility. The civil rights movement merely brought this hostility to the surface. Coping with that reality was, and is, a spiritual discipline.
The fury in King showed through to anyone willing to see it.
Hope gives power to the way of nonviolence; thus King accepted the burden of being a bearer of hope, even as he stressed that white supremacy vengefully prevailed. He warned that despair never sustained any revolution. Liberation and integration go together, and must do so, because power must be shared in a just society. The sharing of power is the very definition of a just society. King wearied of being asked if he still believed in nonviolence. He reached for a way of saying it that settled the question. Most black Americans, he believed, agreed with him about nonviolence, but even if they did not, he believed in it. Some leaders merely reflect whatever the consensus happens to be. King took no interest in that. For him it was convictional leadership or bust, and his conviction was a burning fire in him: “Occasionally in life one develops a conviction so precious and meaningful that he will stand on it till the end. That is what I have found in nonviolence.”
Very near the end of his life, in his last Christmas sermon, King made his usual vow to endure suffering, respond to violence with soul force, and love the oppressors. But now he said it by counterposing the dream of a just society with the nightmares of recent years: the four girls murdered in a church in Birmingham, the miserable poverty of urban neighborhoods, American cities on fire, the war in Vietnam. At the end, King was unfathomably exhausted, living on the edge of despair. But he did not give in to it. “Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes, but in spite of that I close today by saying I still have a dream, because, you know, you can’t give up in life.”
In his last years King fixed on three reforms, one movement ambition, and one colossal imperative. The reforms were to terminate racial discrimination in housing, establish a minimum guaranteed income, and end America’s militarism. The movement ambition was to build a multiracial “Poor People’s Movement” for social justice. One of King’s favorite stories on this subject took place during his jail experience in Birmingham. He told it in his last sermon at Ebenezer Church, two months before he died:
The white wardens and all enjoyed coming around the cell . . . showing us where we were so wrong demonstrating. And they were showing us where segregation was so right. . . . And then we got down one day to the point . . . to talk about where they lived and how much they were earning. And when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, “Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. You’re just as poor as Negroes.” And I said, “You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people.”
King took for granted that the movement for social justice had to give high priority to influencing the federal government. Every reform that he sought focused on the federal government. He never believed that passing the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act exhausted the struggle for government reforms. Though King lost President Johnson’s support after he condemned the Vietnam War in April 1967, he did not make a fetish of the outsider status to which he was driven. The civil rights bills had to be defended and enforced, he wanted the ear of the next president, and it mattered greatly what kind of role the federal government played in social issues, human rights, and war. Believing that a minimum guaranteed income was the appropriate successor to the civil rights bills, King threw his heart and soul into that cause, whether or not a civil rights bill focused on housing could be revived.
Yet King did not settle for political reforms and goals. In his magnificent Riverside Address of April 4, 1967, King invoked the three reform objectives, calling America to repudiate its “giant triplet of racism, materialism, and militarism.” But he featured the larger imperative, calling America to “a true revolution of values” – a moral transformation of American society. King said that America’s warped value system defeated every attempt to overcome the giant triplet. America needed to stop tolerating extreme inequality in the United States, stop pillaging nations in the Third World, and stop presuming its right to bully and invade weaker nations. Above all, America needed to build a culture of atonement for centuries of racial violence and bigotry.
Exactly one year after this speech, King was killed.
This is the King we need to remember today. White Americans have never built anything remotely like the culture of atonement that Germany managed a generation after the crimes of the Nazi era. In 1952, only 5 percent of Germans said they felt guilty about the Holocaust. That year, a German government reparations bill made the first step toward a reckoning with the nation’s actual guilt. King could imagine an American nation that acknowledges its crimes, compels every American to learn about them in school, and builds a generous, hospitable, multiracial social democracy that reconciles America’s democratic self-image with the facts of its history. He was scathing and specific about what was needed and what was lacking.
King’s belief in the importance of federal government reformism was deeply rooted in the black social gospel tradition, and was already under attack by the Black Power movement during his last years. Today it is a flashpoint issue that polarizes American politics at every level, roiling, especially, white working-class Americans, who believe that the federal government confers blessings on everyone except them. The first thing that must be said about the political crisis of the white working class is that the racial factor is central. Working-class whites differ from all other working-class laborers on account of their whiteness. Donald Trump won every economic sector of the white vote, and his race-baiting bigotry was spectacularly successful among the white working class.
America needs to build a culture of atonement for centuries of racial violence and bigotry.
But Trump’s strategy would not have been so successful among working-class whites had Democrats been known for caring about their plight. The difference between normal success and spectacular success swung the election. Poor and working-class white Americans believe by overwhelming margins that the federal government is their adversary. For eight years, working-class whites heard President Obama give sunny speeches about economic progress on his watch, and they burned with resentment. They did not feel economic progress had come to them, and they felt their struggles were invisible to the professional class that runs the Democratic Party. Trump won the white working class by 39 percent – a staggering differential that overcame his immense personal baggage.
Polling data consistently register that white working-class Americans despise the government by a four-to-one ratio. Appealing to this animus is not difficult, and Trump is a master at it. According to Peter Hart Research Associates, a tiny sliver of the white working class is politically liberal, thirty-five percent is ideologically moderate, and the majority is ideologically conservative. The difference between the moderate and conservative groups is that moderates say they would support progressive candidates if they believed that doing so would help them achieve their goals. The moderate group supports higher taxes on the wealthy, curbing the power of Wall Street, and ensuring paid leave for workers.
Politically moderate white working-class voters would welcome government intervention that benefits them. But they emphatically disbelieve it will ever happen. There is an opportunity here for candidates who speak with moral conviction about helping those left behind by economic globalization and by government policies favoring the well connected. Policies that directly help the poor, the working class, and the middle class could be featured: single-payer healthcare, a minimum guaranteed income, paid leave, and rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure. To make a case for this approach, breaking through the miserable status quo, would require a King-like capacity for love and justice, idealism and realism. Thus far, that is very much lacking.
I do not believe that one has to be religious in King’s fashion or in any fashion to sustain the struggle for a good society. But I do believe it helps. Long ago I noticed that the stalwarts of social justice movements, the ones who don’t give up even when they fail, usually have some kind of spiritual wellspring. On the lecture circuit I meet people every week who ask me incredulously why I am still a Christian. I try to explain that I was drawn long ago into the spirit and way of Jesus, which Martin Luther King exemplified.
Jesus did not talk about the things that social ethicists like me talk about. He did not talk about problems of proximate means and ends, theories of justice, intersectional criticism, critical race theory, calculated consequences, postcolonial theory, or defending structures of justice. The gospel has no theory of politics or economics. But the teaching of Jesus impels us into the struggle for a just and peaceable world and holds us there, whether or not we succeed. That is its social relevance. To love God above all things, and your neighbor as yourself, is not merely the content of an impossible ethical ideal, as Reinhold Niebuhr called it. It is the motive force of the struggle for the flourishing of all human life and creation. The love of Jesus makes you care, makes you angry, throws you into the struggle, keeps you in it, and helps you face another day – like Dr. King and those who showed him the way.