Today is a day full of drama with the inauguration of our president, and of remembering the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Today it is acceptable to celebrate Dr. King. Yesterday in many churches there was reference made to Dr. King’s heroic contribution of racial justice. But it was not always so, and many of the churches where there was positive mention of him on yesterday were strangely silent those 50+ years ago. It is so much easier to affirm the prophets after it becomes safe to do so.

You see, Martin Luther King, Jr. was only a year younger than I, and so I lived through those same tumultuous civil rights days. He and I both grew up in the solidly segregated South, but on opposite sides of the racial divide. I was the son of a white separate-but-equal set of parents, when segregation was the norm, and was hardly ever discussed. I went to an all white high school, an all white men’s college, and an all white seminary. I had no significant contact with any black persons until I was ordained, campus pastor at North Carolina State College (which was still all white), and was about 26 years old. What went on in the black community didn’t get much press in my all-white world.

Dr. King, conversely, was a son of privilege: the son and grandson of a distinguished black family in Atlanta, and the son and grandson of prominent pastors. He went to the elite black college: Morehouse. He did his graduate work and received his doctorate from Boston University in Massachusetts, and so would have had significant interaction with his fellow white students there.

Within the black church there was the inescapable daily reality of the racial injustice with which the members lived, but even there it was a bit dicey going too public with that because there were dangerous consequences of challenging the white establishment.

Dr. King could have become the trophy pastor of a significant black church in Montgomery, Alabama…. except for the emergence of a bold and prophetic lady by the name of Rosa Parks, whose courageous act of defiance of the system precipitated the Montgomery bus boycott, and Dr. King was called out of his comfort zone to become the prophetic and eloquent voice for a movement. But even they were not the pioneers. Others in even more hopeless times had sounded the prophetic word: Fannie Lou Hamer, Asa Philip Randolph, and many others.

There were prophetic voices in the white church, but, again, it was not safe to challenge the prevailing white supremacy of that mid-twentieth century culture. Church leaders who did voice support for racial justice were subject to unpleasant repercussions. Pastors who spoke out were often harassed out of pulpits, or suffered breakdowns. It was not safe to be a public advocate of civil rights. There were strong prophetic voices from within the white community but they were reviled as radicals or “communists.” One thinks of P. D. East and his Petal Papers, or Will Campbell, or Clarence Jordan.

But all too much of the white church was silent through it all. Its leaders waited until it was safe to testify to their support of King and the movement.

One might compare that day to ours as being like one who today is leader of a church full of investment bankers, or folk whose income came from investments, touting his or her support of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, and its protest against economic injustice!

Being prophetic is our Kingdom calling, but it is never safe.


About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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