Why I Would Not Have Supported Martin Luther King Back in the Day
As we celebrate Martin Luther King Day this week, people of my generation (regardless of whether they consider themselves conservative or liberal) likely feel a sense of moral superiority over our parents’ and grandparents’ generations on the subject of racial harmony. We see ourselves as both morally and intellectually superior because we recognize the logic of King’s message and sympathize with the plight of black America in the Old South. Growing up in a post-civil rights America in which African-American citizens play prominent roles in almost every profession in our nation makes it almost inconceivable that there could have ever been a time in which the opposite was true.
However, after reading David J. Garrow’s Pulitzer Prize winning MLK biography, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, I have come to recognize that I probably wouldn’t have been quite so sympathetic to King’s cause had I been alive back in the 1950s-1960s. I am not proud of this fact, but I know it to be the truth. I can admit this because I know myself well enough to conclude that I would have tuned out King’s message on account of three specific reasons unrelated to the actual merit of his cause.
1. Martin Luther King was Not “Orthodox.”
King earned his Ph.D. from Boston University, where his theology absorbed many of the basic tenants of liberalism. He adopted Reinhold Niebuhr’s understanding of human depravity, Edgar Brightman’s philosophy of religious personalism (which asserted that all the world’s intrinsic value could be found in individual persons), Walter Rauschenbusch’s enthusiasm for the “social gospel,” and Hegel’s dialectical method (which allowed him to tie it all together). King came to believe a balanced Christian in society “must be both loving and realistic,” able to meet “mind with mind and power with power.” (47) Boston University did not make King a liberal, it merely solidified the ideals he had adopted at Morehouse College and Crozer Theological Seminary years earlier. Though liberal in theology, King discovered deep appreciation for the moral essence of the biblical texts. He pursued a ministerial career initially out of a desire to please his father, attributing his own call not to any “miraculous or supernatural” power but “an inner urge . . . to serve humanity.” (39) His liberalism included a genuine trust in God’s providence and benevolence, a conviction King gained after experiencing a spiritual crisis regarding his ability to lead the Montgomery bus boycott campaign. King described his religious experience as a spiritual awakening to the divine presence in his own life: “I had grown up in the church, and the church meant something very real to me, but it was a kind of inherited religion and I had never felt an experience with God in the way that you must, and have it, if you’re going to walk the lonely paths of life.”
King’s social activism stemmed from his deeply rooted sense of duty to God and his fellow man. Nevertheless, I know myself well enough to know that I would have perceived him too liberal to support.
2. Martin Luther King Associated with Men of Questionable Reputation.
As leader of the Montgomery bus boycott campaign, King allied himself with like-minded social activists whose public records were at odds with conservative America. Most notable among these individuals was Bayard Rustin. Rustin, like King, was a longtime advocate of nonviolent protest and a close friend of other national black leaders. However, even Rustin’s associates worried that his association with King might serve as a stumbling block to the success of the bus boycott. Rustin once held membership in the Young Communist League, served a prison term for resistance to the draft, and committed a homosexual act with two other men that led to a conviction. Rustin was an abomination to conservative American values and the bus boycott campaign risked a smear campaign by association with him.
Nevertheless, King allied himself with Rustin to further his vision of “passive resistance.” Rustin was particularly influential in helping King develop a consistent and working philosophy of nonviolent social reform. Rustin aided the Montgomery bus boycott and became King’s New York-based assistant while continuing his public resistance to war. Rustin helped arrange important meetings between King and then Vice-President Richard Nixon. The fact that King’s cause evolved from a local boycott in Montgomery into a powerful movement that swept the South is largely on account of Rustin’s commitment to the cause.
But would I have supported a movement led by a man who associated publicly with a draft-dodging, communist sympathizing homosexual convict? Absolutely not.
3. Martin Luther King Threatened the Status Quo of White America.
In the late 1950s and early 60s, the powers that made up America’s lifeblood consisted of World War II vets, real American heroes from the greatest generation. This generation had raised American morale out of the Great Depression and created a golden age where every white middle-class family could own their own home, automobile, and television set. Church and society existed in a cooperative relationship and city councilmen might well be deacons in the local Baptist church. We are tempted to imagine that the America of this era was really like an episode of The Andy Griffith Show or Leave It to Beaver, but such a stereotype whitewashes the plight of black Americans attempting to make a living for their own families under a legal system that considered them as second-class citizens regardless of the merits of their own character or work ethic. White America tolerated the quiet, happy black man who would serve his white neighbors with a smile at the local diner or gas station. White America could not embrace a sober activist like King who called for an abrupt end to social oppression. One might say with the Thessalonian scoffers of Acts 17:6 that King’s was “turning the world upside down.”
I’m guessing I would have enjoyed growing up as a white boy in the 1950s South. The racial riots and anti-war protests of the following decade would have proved too radical for my taste. I would have liked the status quo to stay unchanged and comfortable. I give myself enough moral credit to believe that I would have sympathized with the plight of black Americans and would have appalled the lynchings administered by the Ku Klux Klan, but I would have viewed civil rights rallies and marches as distasteful to good civil order. Furthermore, King himself was a flawed vessel. His enemies in the media and the FBI were all too happy to report his extra-marital affairs in attempt to smear his character and sidetrack his mission, and I’m guessing their plot would have succeeded in discrediting King in my eyes.
I’m not a racist, and I don’t think I ever would have been. I’m a conservative, Bible-believing Christian who values a civil and moral society. I think my values would have been much the same if I lived in King’s era. I know I’m a sinner saved by grace, but I like to think of myself as a good person. But reading about King’s life and work has humbled me because I know that my conservative morality would have likely given me moral and intellectual justification to oppose King’s movement had I seen it unfold before my own eyes.
There is just one problem… King was right.
Nowhere is King’s defense of his work more compelling to Christian sensibilities than in his famous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” where he pleaded with Alabama’s clergymen to see the necessity of social upheaval in the name of justice. He called upon them to put their Christian convictions ahead of their civil loyalties. King did not write this letter to close-minded bigots but to moderate-minded white folk who were more devoted to order than justice. These fair-minded whites may have pitied the oppression of African-Americans, but they prescribed patience rather than protest. In response, King argued that the time for patience had expired:
Perhaps it is easy to say . . . “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will . . . when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters. . . your twenty-million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty . . . you seek to explain to your six-year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television . . . and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people . . . when your first name becomes “nigger” and your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) . . . your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.” . . . then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
King dismissed the notion that order must be maintained at the expense of justice. His public rallies and marches drew criticisms from whites for creating too much tension in local communities. Indeed, King sought to create tension, because tension is necessary to awaken a community from ignorance into action for meaningful change.
The example of Martin Luther King, Jr. is a warning to contemporary Christians not to ignore truth when it comes from a vessel that may not look or sound appealing to our preexisting notions of respectability. I would have been wrong. King was right. Would you have been right too?
David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (2004)
Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” (16 April 1963)