When we celebrate King, it is easy to conjure the image of a Klan preacher spewing hatred against the civil-rights movement, just as Trumpvangelicals offer a religious blessing to Trump’s white nationalism today. But segregationist preachers were not the only religious resistance to King’s efforts for systemic justice in America. Dr. King’s own denomination, the National Baptist Convention, pushed him out along with other Baptist preachers who insisted on the tactic of nonviolent direct action. Then as now, the opposition to reconstruction of American democracy claimed the moral narrative in our common life.
King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” perhaps his most famous written work, was penned in response to seven Christian ministers and a rabbi in Alabama. In the opening lines of their “Good Friday Statement,” sent to Dr. King April 12, 1963, the ministers note that they had already written “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense,” a statement sent to him January 16, 1963. They do not try to defend white supremacy; in fact, they acknowledge the existence of “various problems that cause racial friction and unrest.” But they object staunchly to the way in which Dr. King and the civil-rights movement have confronted Jim Crow laws, demanding change through nonviolent direct action. Such demands, these religious leaders insist, should be “pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets.”
Such was the “common sense” of faith leaders in 1960s Birmingham. They thought they understood how change must be pursued: legally, and with deference to the order that white supremacy built and Bull Connor—the city’s doggedly pro-segregation commissioner—controlled. If King and others weren’t willing to meet the city fathers on their terms and compromise, then these religious leaders believed they were contributing to hatred and violence.
Dr. King objected—and his polemical response is what we remember half a century later. But the fact that the ecumenical leadership of the faith community in Alabama at the time felt self-assured in making this statement is a testimony to how prevalent their political “realism” was across theological traditions.
We must not deceive ourselves. Even as we gather in churches, synagogues, community centers, and university halls across America to honor the legacy of Dr. King this weekend, the so-called moderates’ call for compromise is drowning out King’s insistence that we cannot submit to the terms of white supremacy. Trump’s immoral demand for an unnecessary wall is an effort to concretize every lie that has been told about immigrants by this administration. Such a wall would be as poisonous to our common life as the “whites only” signs in 1960s Birmingham were to the citizens Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference came to support in their campaign to tear down Jim Crow.