Fifty years after Martin Luther King’s death, racial unity is more dream than reality in America. But what about the church?
Personhood and justice were the themes of a 1968 sanitation workers’ strike memorialized today by a mural in Memphis. Managing editor Meredith Flynn returned home to Memphis to learn what has developed in racial equality and unity, as the city observed the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.
By Meredith Flynn
In 1968, striking sanitation workers carried signs in Memphis proclaiming “I Am A Man.” They marched to protest working conditions that had recently left two of their own dead. It was their protest that brought Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis, and to the Lorraine Motel, where he was asassinated.
Fifty years later, people convened at the site to see what has happened with civil rights, and nearby, Southern Baptist leaders questioned the state of race relations and unity in the church. About 4,000 people met at the city’s convention center for MLK50, a conference on race and the church, co-sponsored by the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
The meeting featured a diverse group of speakers on an even broader list of topics: race and politics, systemic injustice, coming to terms with the past—and present. In their messages was this plea: Churches can no longer be silent on the issue of racial justice.
“We have expected you to be our greatest allies in the struggle against injustice,” Chicago pastor Charlie Dates told fellow pastors. “And we wanted you to shout it from your pulpits.”
In a letter written from jail in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, Dr. King expressed similar disappointment with white ministers who were either opposed to the Civil Rights movement or cautious about getting too involved. King’s words for the latter are hard to read— they “have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows,” he wrote.
“Often, we can fool ourselves into believing that somehow history itself will take care of problems of racial injustice,” said Russell Moore, president of the ERLC. “That somehow inevitably, these things will work themselves out.”
But they haven’t. Racially motivated violence took the lives of nine members of a black church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. White supremacists marched in Virginia and elsewhere, just last year. While most people don’t use racial slurs or march behind the Confederate flag, Moore said, we still retreat to the places and mindsets where we’re most comfortable.
All the while, the church has the solution: the power of the gospel to redeem sinners, and to transform brokenness. Speakers on the MLK50 stage implored pastors and Christians to work toward a radical view of unity—one that lays down personal preference and seeks to understand others, for the glory of God and for the sake of the gospel.
It starts with courageous leaders, said Kevin Smith, executive director for the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware. “Nothing changes about the church in America without the pulpit changing.”
Lessons from Lorraine Motel
To grow up in Memphis is to be well acquainted with Dr. King and Rosa Parks and the Freedom Riders. The Lorraine Motel is a city landmark, and when the museum opened downtown in the mid-90’s, school groups started taking field trips there. Still, in a city so closely entwined with the Civil Rights movement, it’s surprisingly easy to grow up holding history at arm’s length.
On April 4 of this year, attenders at the MLK50 conference took a break to join the city’s celebration of Dr. King. At the motel, the courtyard and parking lot under the balcony where he was shot were cordoned off. Folding chairs were set up for guests invited to attend the ceremony in his honor. Other visitors to the site stood well behind them, at the top of a small hill overlooking the hotel.
Down the street, pop-up booths sold T-shirts and other memorabilia. Upbeat music poured out of an open shop door. At 6:01 p.m., the festivities stopped for a moment of silence in observance of King’s death. What resounded at the event, over the beat of reggae music and over the momentary silence, was an invitation to lean in and learn.
The same was true at the conference. A Southern Baptist pastor crystallized a call to action for the denomination: “Every time there’s an opportunity to drive a nail in the coffin of racism, every white Southern Baptist should be very quick to grab the hammer,” said Vance Pitman, pastor of Hope Church in Las Vegas. He was one of four Baptist leaders who took part in a panel discussion on the SBC and race, a session that started with a look at the denomination’s historical struggle to overcome prejudice and discrimination.
This is an ongoing struggle. In 1995, Baptists approved a resolution repenting of racism and asking African-Americans for forgiveness. In 2016, messengers repudiated the Confederate flag, and in two emotional sessions last year, messengers resoundingly approved another resolution condemning “alt-right” racism.
“It’s something that we’re going to have to constantly—as a convention, as a denomination—deal with and address as we move forward to continue to work towards the kind of reconciliation that we need to see happen,” Pitman said.
The panel, which also included Kevin Smith, National African American Fellowship President Byron Day, and Iowa pastor Jeff Dodge, discussed the “missiological consequences” of not pursuing racial unity, as well as the value of individual relationships across racial boundaries. When the conversation eventually turned to leadership of SBC entities, Pitman said it is “imperative” that at least one of two vacant posts—president/CEO of the Executive Committee and president of the International Mission Board—be filled with minority leadership.
Representation and leadership are key issues on the local church level as well, said Randle Bishop, an elder of Immanuel Baptist Church in Chicago, who attended the MLK50 conference. “One area that lacks unity in our churches and other Christian ministries is the glaring lack of submission to minority leadership,” Bishop told the Illinois Baptist.
“The reason for this is surely complex,” Bishop said. “However, if whites were to join biblically-faithful black and Hispanic churches and Christian ministries, this could be an additional approach to advancing greater unity in the body of Christ.”
A biblical imperative
Many of the addresses given in Memphis had at their root the Bible’s words about unity among Christ-followers. They called racism by its name—sin—and described its effect on American society and the church. “Namely,” said Bishop, referencing Genesis 1:27, “sin has deeply affected the way we relate to one another as image-bearers.”
“One takeaway for me was seeing how clearly the Bible addresses the hypocrisy of those who sinfully act out in racism towards other people. We do not have to take our cues in this conversation from the world and we must not,” Bishop said. “Jesus has clearly spoken in his word. He has said, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Throughout the conference, speakers made it apparent that how to go about loving your neighbor as yourself, especially in the realms of racial identity and justice, is an exceedingly complex matter. But, they seemed to say, it starts with humility, and a willingness to set aside personal preferences in order to pick up unfamiliar burdens.
“We’re free to love each other,” Moore said. “Free to listen to each other. Free to be led by one another. Free to serve one another. We’re free to be the church of Jesus Christ. And if we have to change our worship styles, let’s crucify our worship styles. If God’s way upsets our political alliances, let’s crucify our political alliances.
“To be a gospel people means that we don’t seek a cheap reconciliation, but a cross reconciliation.”
Meredith Flynn is managing editor of the Illinois Baptist.