Even at the height of his popularity and visibility in the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. remained — at his core — a Baptist preacher.
He galvanized the faithful by drawing on biblical phrases, stories and metaphors about justice that would stir the souls of Christians everywhere, but especially those who filled the black churches Sunday after Sunday. He quoted Hebrew prophets as well as Jesus Christ and St. Paul to move the black churches to act and white Americans to understand.
“We will not be satisfied until,” King told the enraptured throngs gathered on the Washington Mall for his “I Have a Dream” speech in the summer of 1963, “ ’justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream ‘ ” — an allusion to the Old Testament book of Amos.
In the final speech before his 1968 assassination, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” King compared himself to Moses leading his people out of bondage in Egypt and later conversing with deity.
God “allowed me to go up to the mountain,” the activist said. “And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land.”
King’s movement was, some scholars say, the last moment in U.S. history when a religious leader could speak with such moral authority to the whole nation.
As the country prepares to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, plenty of racism persists — police brutality, mass incarceration of blacks, economic discrimination, poverty — but the people leading opposition to that racism do not necessarily come from the black churches.
Though there are theists, theologians and clergy involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, some others are younger and not religious at all.
“They are looking at how systemic racism is today,” explains Janan Graham-Russell, finishing up her master’s degree in religious studies at Howard University in Washington, D.C., “not through a lens of sin.”
The way to battle racism has changed, too.
“It’s the same devil,” she says, “but in a new coat.”
It is hard to compare King with anyone else, says Catherine Stokes, a black Mormon convert and retired public-health professional who now lives in Salt Lake City.
“My daddy took me as a child to hear King preach at Soldier Field [in Chicago],” Stokes recalls. Her father told her, “ This man is going to make history. ”
He was not flawless, but unique, she says, “prophetic, visionary, a strategic thinker, accomplished intellectually and educationally, grounded in spiritual roots.”
“Martin,” she says with affection, “had vision, and that leadership quality which leads people to heights they would not have attained, and sustains them in persevering.”
When King was gunned down, Stokes says, “we lost leadership on all those levels.”
“It’s not that the black church went away,” says Graham-Russell, whose emphasis is on ethics and social justice. “It’s just that the church’s role somewhat shifted.”
SOURCE: The Salt Lake Tribune, Peggy Fletcher Stack