The year was 1963. I was 14 years old. So it could not have been that I was unaware of what was going on in my city, but more likely that I was sheltered from it. I’m referring to two events: the day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested and incarcerated in the Birmingham jail; and in that same year — Sunday, September 13 — the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed, taking the lives of four little girls as they left their Sunday School class to go into the sanctuary.
It was a white supremacist terrorist bombing, just before 11 o’clock, when instead of rising to begin prayers, the congregation was knocked to the ground. As the bomb exploded under the steps of the church, the congregants sought safety under the pews and shielded each other from falling debris.
Five months earlier, on April 12, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested with SCLC activists Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, and other marchers, while thousands of African Americans dressed for Good Friday wondered what in the world the future might hold.
As a child, I would proudly sing a song I learned in school, “Birmingham’s My Home. In the days of 1963, I was not so proud that Birmingham, Alabama was my home. Today, I feel deep shame to admit that even at age 14, I had no idea what was happening or why it was happening. To be sure, I was not yet “woke” in any sense of the word.
While incarcerated, Dr. King wrote a letter. Some of his most eloquent, scorching, but hopeful words were penned during his time in the Birmingham Jail. These words he wrote from there are quite striking to me:
“. . . in some not too distant tomorrow
the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation
with all their scintillating beauty.”
How is it that we have not yet seen the “radiant stars of love and brotherhood” [and sisterhood] “shining over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty?” Why does the struggle for racial justice still play out in the streets of this nation’s cities as the oppressed still cry out against the injustice that continues to hold them in chains?
I will not attempt to answer those unanswerable questions. I will point out the mountains that still stand ominously before us. We cannot move those mountains, it seems, as they loom over us — immense, towering, formidable, oppressive. The rocks, crags and peaks of them looking like peaceful protests by persons crying out for freedom in June, white supremacists violently storming the United States Capitol just 12 days ago, and the terrifying Coronavirus that still threatens after so many months.
How will we see the radiant stars of beloved community, of hope, of peace when we cannot move those mountains? Words cannot move mountains, but words can give us the strength and courage to try. And so I leave you with Dr. King’s words as we honor him on this day:
“Out of the mountain of despair, the stone of hope.”*
I wish for you radiant stars of love, the sunlight of hope that is new every morning, and the glistening wings of peace to guide your way.
*Dr. King delivered this line during his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963. It now appears is one of the most prominently featured quotes on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington.
It was called the greatest speech ever written — April 4, 1968.
A predominantly black crowd gathered in the streets of Indianapolis. They had had not yet heard the devastating news of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. It was Robert F. Kennedy who brought them the pain-filled news in a brief announcement. And then he shared the unending pain he felt, but seldom mentioned publicly, of his brother’s death in Dallas. He pleaded with the crowd to “return home, to say a prayer . . . for understanding and compassion . . . to make gentle the life of the world.”
They did go home, and Indianapolis was one of the few American cities that did not burn that night.
When we contemplate today’s headlines, some of us can hear Robert Kennedy’s voice and imagine him speaking out in our country — on the madness of gun violence, on the shame of police brutality, on the need for compassion in welcoming immigrants and refugees, on the moral necessity to seek peace instead of war, and on the divisiveness of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and all other challenges to our quest for unity. His way of communicating with others — personally or in crowds of people — was calming and inspiring.
When he spoke, he often called for peace and unity:
Surely we can learn, at least, to bind up the wounds among us and become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again.
— Robert F. Kennedy
Clearly, Robert F. Kennedy was loved by the everyday people of this nation — the factory and farm workers, the coal miners and the steel workers, the teachers and the doctors, the people who lived in the most modest neighborhoods as well as the people in the mansions on the hilltops. Why such an appeal? It could well be because his life and leadership were forged in the civil rights battles he faced as attorney general and in his own harrowing introspection after his brother’s assassination on November 22, 1963.
Less than five years after losing his brother, “as he lay shot and bleeding on the kitchen floor of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, he looked up and asked: “Is everybody OK?”
— Robert Morris Shrum, Director and Carmen H. and Louis Warschaw Chair in Practical Politics, UNiversity of Southern California
The books and films on Robert F. Kennedy’s life are so compelling that even persons who were not yet born then can grasp why millions flocked to rail sides as his funeral train traveled ever so slowly from New York to Washington, DC. In the midst of a nation’s despondency at losing the third great American leader, the train carrying his body was a kind of defiant last rally, a tribute not only to who he had been, but to what might have been. His daughter described that day.
A train carried his body from New York City to the nation’s capital. Crowds lined the train tracks, and waved, and cried. That train ride was supposed to be three hours, and instead it turned out to be almost seven hours. Two million people came out. African Americans in Baltimore singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Nobody organized this; it was spontaneous.
— Robert F. Kennedy’s daughter, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend
As always, we have the opportunity to grow and learn on the other side of tragic loss. We would do well to listen carefully to the plea spoken so many years ago by Robert F. Kennedy to the people grieving the death of Dr. King.
Say a prayer . . . for understanding and compassion . . . to make gentle the life of the world.
Let’s do that, right in the face of today’s angst over so many ills and wrongs. Let’s “say a prayer . . . to make gentle the life of the world.”
I invite you to read “Out of Africa: White supremacy and the Church’s silence,” a provocative opinion piece by our guest blogger, Dr. Bill J. Leonard. Many thanks to Dr. Leonard for prompting us to more fully commemorate the day honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. If you are willing to challenge yourself, these words will shed the light you need to do so.
Out of Africa: White supremacy and the Church’s silence
OPINION | BILL LEONARD | JANUARY 15, 2018
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled [Caucasian?] masses, yearning to breathe free.”
Three days before the 2018 Martin Luther King Jr. memorial observances, and in the 50th year after Dr. King’s assassination, the plague of racism in America continued, even as white supremacy, long lingering just below the surface, reasserted itself with a vengeance.
On Jan. 12, the president of the United States, at a White House meeting on immigration, allegedly asked why “all these people from shithole countries,” specifically Haiti and Africa, should be admitted to the U.S. He was also said to have wondered aloud why the U.S. could not secure more immigrants from countries like Norway (83 percent Caucasian). Confirmation of his remarks vary from those in attendance. Some confirm the alleged statements; others deny them. Somebody’s lying.
The mere report of the comments was immediately celebrated across the country’s white supremacist network, much as when Trump affirmed “good people on both sides” in last year’s violent neo-Nazi-led demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va. White nationalist Richard Spencer chastised Trump’s defenders for suggesting the statements were related to law or economics, since they were actually “all about race.” Spencer was, of course, delighted. The Neo-Nazi blog, the Daily Stormer, hailed the President’s words as “encouraging and refreshing” since they indicated that “Trump is more or less on the same page as us” regarding “race and immigration.” In America, 2018, white supremacy is now apparently “refreshing.”
Dallas Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress defended the president, noting that “apart from the vocabulary attributed to him,” Trump’s comments were “right on target” with his presidential responsibility “to place the interests of our nation above the needs of other countries.” That’s unlike Christians’ “biblical responsibility” to “place the needs of others” above themselves. (Racism’s OK; it’s vulgar language that’s the problem.)
Amid debates over the veracity of witnesses to the White House event, the fact remains that the dogmas of white supremacy lie at the center of America’s long night of racism, in politics, social structures, and racial stereotypes. At this moment in history, how can American Christians, themselves deeply divided over scripture, doctrine, sexuality, abortion, and other culture war accoutrements, foster a common compulsion to speak out against white supremacist fiction before it gains an even stronger implicit or explicit influence?
Even if President Trump did not use vulgar words to highlight his views on immigration, did he in fact wistfully promote a 21st century America where Aryans (remember the history of that word?) are preferred to immigrants of color? Surely it is time to break the silence, not simply because of those shameful remarks, but because they are part of a larger litany of racial dog whistles from Trump’s birther campaign, to attacks on a “Mexican” judge and a Gold Star Muslim family, to the infamous Charlottesville slurs.
We have many reasons to break the silence: First, because white supremacy itself is an inherently evil yet an enduring vision of the nature of humanity, and must be resisted for that fact alone. It has polluted our national psyche long enough!
Second, we break the silence on this matter because we hear again Dr. King’s words from that Birmingham jail: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Third, we Aryan Christians cannot be silent because it’s our racial ancestors who first planted the banner of racism in our laws, our institutions (churches included), and in our hearts. And some among us still won’t let it go. We need to get “saved” from it.
Fourth, we speak out now because American churches, at least many of them, remained silent for too long. Indeed, Trump’s only a symptom; we scapegoat him at our peril. When his remarks hit the fan, I returned to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, a book that has taught me, shamed me, blessed me, and broken me for decades. Baldwin writes: “It is not too much to say that whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being (and let us not ask whether or not this is possible) must first divorce him[her]self from all the prohibitions, crimes and hypocrisies of the Christian church. If the concept of God has had any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.” (Whatever God is, it damn sure isn’t white supremacy.)
Mercer University professor Robert Nash illustrates Baldwin’s point in a superb essay entitled, “Peculiarly Chosen: Anglo-Saxon Supremacy and Baptist Missions in the South,” documenting that ecclesiastical collusion with the case of James Franklin Love, corresponding secretary of the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1915-1928. Nash notes that Love “was profoundly influenced by the concept of Anglo-Saxon supremacy … that white races possessed a superior intellect, religion, and civilization.”
Love’s mission strategy focused on evangelization of Europe since white Christians could more readily convert the darker races. He wrote: “Let us not forget that to the white man God gave the instinct and talent to disseminate His ideals among other people and that he did not, to the same degree, give this instinct and talent to the yellow, brown or black race. The white race only has the genius to introduce Christianity into all lands and among all people.” (In 2017, the Southern Baptist Convention went on record condemning white supremacy then and now. It’s about time.)
Finally, we break the silence, confronting white supremacy and its accompanying racism at this moment because we will neither deny nor sully the African heritage of our African-American sisters and brothers, who as W.E.B. Dubois wrote, “would not bleach … [their] Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism,” since they know “that Negro blood has a message for the world.”
On what would have been his 89th birthday, Dr. King retains his prophetic voice for black and white alike, declaring from his jail cell then and now: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men [women] willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”
Today, we read again Matthew’s haunting assessment of the Holy Family’s immigration from Herod’s not-so-holy-land:
“Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
Sweet Jesus, Egypt’s in Africa! Amen”
Bill J. Leonard is the James and Marilyn Dunn Professor of Baptist Studies, Professor of Church History, School of Divinity, Wake Forest University.