Dr. King’s Words Should Scare Whites Like Me

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White Christians Like Me

There was once a group of people that thought like me, taught like me, and even looked like me.  They were white conservative evangelicals who faithfully took their children to church, read their King James Bibles, and even served as deacons.  They lived each day under the assumption that they were a force for good in their community.

And yet this group of people was blind.  Woefully blind.  Sadly, it was this group of Christians in the 1960s that most troubled the heart of America’s greatest champion for social justice, Martin Luther King Jr.  If they could have only seen their blind spots.

The images from those freedom marches are stamped into our minds and history books.  Peaceful black protesters being blasted with fire hoses, spat on by pale bystanders, and attacked by police dogs.Dogs Attacking.jpg
This was the kind of vicious resistance that the desegregation movement met at every southern street corner.  Therefore, it is natural for us to assume that the biggest hindrance to racial integration were these blatantly anti-black lawmakers and citizens who shared a special disdain for the freedom movement.  And yet Dr. King didn’t consider these unabashed bigots the greatest hindrance to his efforts.

King’s Biggest Stumbling Block

Dr. King’s biggest “stumbling block” was the southern churchman who considered King’s methods too extreme.  Many of these naysayers were white Southern Baptist moderates who were more concerned with social peace and lawful order.[1] Having been numbed by the blatant racism of their own era, these whites advocated for a soft, slow and orderly rate of social change.  They wagged their sanctimonious fingers at Dr. King disparaging him because his methods resulted in too much social unrest. (Audio from Dr. King’s 1961 talk at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary helps shed light on the kind of soft criticism he received from white Southern Baptists).

Oh, if they only could have seen their blind spots.

In his letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King writes to a group of people who, like me, seemingly loved their God, their Bibles and their black brothers. Dr. King’s words frighten me because he is talking to people who were just like me:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is 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; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” 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.”

These words should serve as a serious heart check to white Christians today who casually dismiss the startling statistics that paint a picture of a systemic problem in our country when it comes to the African-American experience. Racism isn’t always blatant. Sometimes, it hides behind good intentions and a strict adherence to a passive peace while disregarding the bible’s demands for the presence of true social justice.

Here’s a helpful interview on this topic.

[1] Newman, Mark.  Getting Right With God : Southern Baptists and Desegregation, 1945-1995.

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