Religion News Service is marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with stories and commentaries looking back at the tragic, momentous event. The rest of the package can be found here.
(RNS) — As we remember the life and death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. this week, it is important to remember that King began his ministry in Montgomery, Ala., where he pastored Dexter Avenue Baptist Church from 1954-1960. After just a year in the pastorate, he was thrust into leadership of the emerging Montgomery bus boycott. At the first mass meeting held at Holt Street Baptist Church in front of a crowd of 5,000 people, King, just 26, left no doubt that this was a Christian movement, saying:
“We are here, we are here this evening because we’re tired now. And I want to say that we are not here advocating violence. We have never done that. I want it to be known throughout Montgomery and throughout this nation that we are Christian people. We believe in the Christian religion. We believe in the teachings of Jesus. The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest.”
He went on in this initial sermon of the bus boycott in 1955 to quote from the prophet Amos and say, “If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to earth. 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.”
The legacy of King in Montgomery is one of respect and reverence, but his ultimate dream of unity and brotherly love is still being realized.
I came to Montgomery as a 25-year-old Southern Baptist pastor in 2000 and began to study King, the bus boycott, the civil rights movement and the legacy it left on the city. I discovered that while King was honored, his call to justice and unity in an active sense — that made a difference in lives, churches and neighborhoods — had not been completely embraced.
White and black Christians were kind to one another, but remained mostly separated in our churches. The schools were largely de facto segregated into public (majority-black) and private (majority-white) systems. White flight to surrounding areas was in full swing. There were always reasons given that had nothing to do with race, but the practical reality was that Montgomery still existed along different sides of racial divides. Much had changed, but we had further to go.
In his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King expressed his disappointment in the “white moderate” who was “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice … ”
In confronting white clergy for not supporting his efforts in opposing Jim Crow, he hits on one of the biggest barriers to seeing true unity between Christians in America: We often seek to promote, protect and defend our “way of life” rather than engage in sacrificial love for our brother, our neighbor and even our enemy. If we benefit from the status quo, we can seek to maintain it rather than recognize that a wheel of injustice might be grinding our neighbor down. King shone a light on that injustice and it often made white Christians uncomfortable. His words and legacy, if we listen, still make us uncomfortable today.
But, great progress has been made, even though we have a long way to go.
This week, Southern Baptists and other evangelicals led by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and The Gospel Coalition are meeting in Memphis for “MLK50: Gospel Reflections From the Mountaintop,” to consider the lessons of King’s life and leadership. This is unprecedented. This past year, Southern Baptists on a national level and in seven state conventions passed resolutions against white supremacy, white nationalism and the alt-right.
This past Sunday in Montgomery, thousands of Christians from all races, nations and backgrounds gathered in Montgomery for an Easter celebration to worship and take Communion together, announcing that we are one church: black, white, Hispanic, Asian, native-born, immigrant — one people in Christ. King would have been proud. And he would have called us to go further.
We have come a long way, but we still have a long road ahead of us. The “positive peace” that King called us to is one that involves sacrificial love for neighbor. Montgomery is still grappling with that call 50 years later, as is America. But, 2,000 years ago from a bloody cross, Jesus showed us the better way. We will get there if we follow him.
(Alan Cross is a Southern Baptist Convention minister and advocate for immigrants and refugees as well as author of “When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)