MLK: “What kind of people worship there? Who is their God?”

From James H. Cone, Martin & Malcolm & America, 137-138:

In many addresses and writings to white churches, King perceived that his task, as a minister of the gospel and as a citizen of America, was to inform them of their responsibilities in the Negro struggle for justice. At the Conference on Christian Faith and Human Relations, which was sponsored by eighty-five southern religious leaders of both races and was held in Nashville, Tennessee, on 23=25 April 1957, King gave what became his standard address to white church bodies. He began by lauding America’s great advances in science and technology, enabling us to “cure dreaded diseases,” to “carve highways through the stratosphere,” and to “build the greatest system of production the world has ever known.” But, said King, “there is another side to our national life which is not bright.” He was referring to the “racial conflict,” “the chief moral dilemma of our nation,” as he frequently called it. “In the midst of all of our scientific and technological advances,” King told white ministers, “we have not learned the simple art of loving our neighbors and respecting the dignity and worth of all human personality. Through our scientific genius, we have made the world a neighborhood, but through our moral and spiritual geniuses, we have failed to make our Nation a brotherhood.” The great gap between our science and our morality, our technology and our theology presents the church with a “tremendous challenge,” because, as he said in a similar presentation to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, “the church has a moral responsibility of being the moral guardian of society.” “The broad universalism standing at the center of the Gospel,” said King in his Nashville address, “makes brotherhood morally inescapable. Racial segregation is a blatant denial of the unity we have in Christ. Segregation is a tragic evil which is utterly un-Christian.”

King realized that his claim about the un-Christian nature of segregation was not as obvious to white ministers (especially in the South) as it was to Negro ministers. Patient in his faith, he often repeated three reasons for his point of view. “First,” he said, “segregation inevitably makes for inequality”; second, “it scars the soul of both the segregator and the segregated”; and third, “it ends up depersonalizing the segregated.”

Despite King’s repeated appeals, most white clergy remained unmoved in the early 1960s, and King began to express his impatience. He gave a sharp critique of their “abysmal silence” during the crisis precipitated by James Meredith’s entry into the University of Mississippi. After federal troops had quelled white rioters, King wrote in The Nation (13 October 1962), “Where was the cry of the Lord’s prophets?” He could not understand the silence of the white clergy. King recalled his travels through Mississippi where he had seen “tall church spires and sprawling brick monuments dedicated to the glory of God.” with segreagation as a way of life, he wondered then about the people and the God they worshipped in their churches. He wrote: “When I review the painful memory of the last week at Oxford and cannot recall a single voice ‘crying in the wilderness,’ the questions are still the same: ‘What kind of people worship there? Who is their God?’”


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