By / Jan 16

The Bible was central to the thought, rhetoric, and development of the Civil Rights Movement. This was influenced by the essential role of Black churches and preachers in the organization of the movement. Not only was the movement characterized by meetings in churches and the singing of Negro spirituals, it was also marked by biblical themes and biblical rhetoric.

An example of biblical rhetoric

A prime example of popular civil rights rhetoric is Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech delivered on August 28, 1963. The speech reflected King’s criticisms and hopes for America set in the language of the prophets of the Old Testament. For example, he said satisfaction would not come until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24). This was familiar language in the Bible-literate America of that day.

In the conclusion, as King soared into describing his dream, he described a day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together” (Isa. 40:4-5).

Furthermore, it should not be taken for granted that the celebrated leader of the Civil Rights Movement was a Black Baptist preacher.

The biblical teaching behind the movement

The central intellectual strain behind the movement focused on the issue of the equality of all humans, since they were “created . . . in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27), whether Black or white. Throughout the Black freedom struggle in American history, the biblical teachings on creation and human dignity were foundational to the arguments being put forth, both by scholars and by everyday people. Even those who were illiterate knew from the rhetoric of the movement that God had created all people from one man (Acts 17:26).

In his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail written April 16, 1963, King resorted to biblical examples as a defense when he was accused of being an extremist for participating in demonstrations, sit-ins, and boycotts. He asked whether Jesus was an extremist when he said, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). He also cited the prophet Amos and the apostle Paul, asking whether their words and actions were not also “extreme.” Finally, reflecting on Jesus’ death at Calvary, he wrote that “Jesus was an extremist for love, truth, and goodness.”

And in his appeal to white ministers for support, King commonly cited biblical texts and the examples of Christ.

Conclusion

The Bible was central to the pulse of the Civil Rights Movement. In planning meetings, preachers and laypersons read from its pages. In public disputes, everyday people quoted its promises and its truth regarding the dignity of all humanity, regardless of skin color. It truly would not be a stretch to suggest that the Civil Rights Movement would have lacked moral fiber (and one might further say divine blessing) without the underlying truth claims drawn from the Bible.

By / Aug 28

This week marks the 57th anniversary of the original March on Washington. This event, held on Aug. 28, 1963, helped to pass the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965).

Here are five facts you should know about the landmark civil rights protest march.

1. The event—officially known as the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”—was organized by the “Big Six” leaders of the civil rights movement: A. Philip Randolph, Whitney M. Young, Jr., Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, Roy Wilkins, and John Lewis. Bayard Rustin was chief organizer of the march. 

Although the organizers disagreed about the purpose of the march, the group came together on a set of goals: passage of meaningful civil rights legislation; immediate elimination of school segregation; a program of public works, including job training, for the unemployed; a federal law prohibiting discrimination in public or private hiring; a $2-an-hour minimum wage nationwide; withholding Federal funds from programs that tolerate discrimination; enforcement of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution by reducing congressional representation from states that disenfranchise citizens; a broadened Fair Labor Standards Act to currently excluded employment areas; and authority for the Attorney General to institute injunctive suits when constitutional rights are violated.

2. The event took a staggering level of logistical effort. Organizers and officials planned for a crowd of about 150,000. But on the day of the march over 250,000 gathered together on the National Mall. To get to Washington, D.C., protesters took more than 2,000 buses, 21 chartered trains, 10 chartered airliners, and uncounted cars. All regularly scheduled planes, trains, and buses were also filled to capacity. On the National Mall, over 100 portable toilets were set up along with 16 first-aid stations. Eight 2,500-gallon water tanks were set up, which fed some 21 portable water fountains. Additionally, spouts were attached to fire hydrants so marchers would have access to drinking water. Volunteers prepared some 80,000 boxed lunches—sold for 50 cents each—consisting of a cheese sandwich, an apple, and a slice of cake.

3. Event organizer Bayard Rustin recruited 4,000 off-duty police officers and firemen to serve as event marshals, and coached them in the crowd control techniques he’d learned in India studying nonviolent political participation. The official law enforcement also included 5,000 police, National Guardsmen, and Army reservists. No marchers were arrested, though, and no incidents concerning marchers were reported.

4. Representatives from each of the sponsoring organizations addressed the crowd from the podium at the Lincoln Memorial. Speakers (dubbed “The Big Ten”) included The Big Six; three religious leaders (Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish); and labor leader Walter Reuther. Along with the speakers, the marchers were entertained by celebrities, including Ossie Davis, Joan Baez, Mahalia Jackson, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Jackie Robinson.

5. King was the last speaker because no one else wanted that slot, since all of the other speakers assumed the news media would leave by mid-afternoon. King agreed to take it and planned to speak for four minutes, but ended up speaking for 16 minutes. He improvised the most recognizable, memorable part of the speech for which he is most famous, according to his speechwriter and attorney Clarence B. Jones. Although King had spoken about a dream before two months earlier in Detroit, the “dream” was not in the text prepared by Jones. King initially followed the text Jones had written but gospel singer Mahalia Jackson yelled, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin!” King nodded to her, placed the text of his speech aside, and veered off-script, delivering extemporaneously what is referred to as the “I Have a Dream” speech, one of the most famous orations in American history.

By / Nov 6

Russell Moore joins John Perkins to discuss the Civil Rights Movement 50 years after Martin Luther King, Jr. and the ongoing work that needs to be done.

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By / Oct 23

Trip Lee discusses hip-hop, Christianity and the next generation, while at MLK50 conference in Memphis, Tenn. Trip Lee is a Christian rapper, singer, poet, and author.

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By / Jun 12

The shots that rang out 50 years ago in Memphis, Tenn., and killed Martin Luther King Jr. are unforgettable. They are also a marker in our nation’s evil past. But how has Memphis, specifically, been affected since that day? Cole Huffman, Steve Gaines, Eli Morris, Bishop Ed Stephens, and J. Lawrence Turner—all serving in Memphis—talk about how their city is doing 50 years after King’s death. 

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By / Mar 28

In 1963, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sat in a Birmingham jail and penned a “patient and reasonable” response to clergy who criticized his visit as “unwise and untimely.” Though these preachers weren’t in denial of racial injustices, they nevertheless maintained that this fight was better fought in the courts and not in mass demonstrations.

King, however, was invited to the Alabama city to redress the violence and segregation terrorizing black citizens there. King wrote, “There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation.” Due to grandeur of the problems, legal recourse had to be met with direct action, King affirmed. Birmingham was a dangerous city for blacks, and King was called upon to do something about it.

His masterful letter wasn’t addressed to the Klan or members of the Citizens’ Council, though. The Baptist preacher was writing to white moderates of “genuine good will,” men and women who claimed that everyone was equal in the eyes of God but who did little to correspond that belief to the social order. They were silent in the face of black suffering.

There’s more to be done

As we approach the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination, much of the white church has remained largely silent about the struggle for justice we are still engaged in, because addressing justice issues brings you under suspicion of being liberal, or worse, brands you with shame attached to freedom loving Christians 50 years ago who dared called out American racial idolatry and hypocrisy. As economic, educational, and opportunity inequities persist, the proverbial “color line” around these matters persists also.

To be sure, there was, in the words of Russell Moore, a prophetic minority of white evangelicals—then and now—who understood the biblical mandate for justice and righteousness. Though rare and often unsung, these white pastors counter-culturally preached against the civil religion of Jim Crow Christendom. And it cost them. As they prophesied against Babylon, they were fired from their churches. Some were even killed because they loved Jesus more than comfort. Their testimonies should be told, not only so that black brothers and sisters know their names, but more importantly, so that white Christians can know their courage.  

Indeed, there were and are white followers of Jesus who get the gospel’s social implications and its justice demands. But, alas, as Dr. King noted in his letter, more could have (and should be) done. Listen again to King’s words:

I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue. I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand on this past Sunday, in welcoming Negroes to your worship service on a nonsegregated basis. I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Spring Hill College several years ago.

But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.

MLK50 and loving our neighbor

When thousands gather in Memphis for the MLK50 Conference, I pray that there will be a reckoning with this. What is needed now isn’t evangelical platitudes. What we need is solidarity that manifests interracial love of neighbor. MLK50 is a time for us as the church to take seriously the prophetic and priestly dimensions of our justice and mercy responsibility, our commitment to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. It's a time for us to seek to be faithful to the whole counsel of God.

This also means that white evangelicals should listen to their minority brothers and sisters who appreciate that Jesus and justice aren’t antonyms. To follow Jesus is to follow the one anointed with the Holy Spirit to preach the gospel to the poor, heal the brokenhearted, preach deliverance to the captives, recover sight to the blind, liberate the oppressed, and preach the Father’s jubilee (Luke 4:18-19).

I'm, therefore, thankful that the ERLC and TGC are co-hosting the MLK50 Conference and honored to be a part of it. This historic moment isn't a time of reflective action just for the black church or liberals, but also for conservative evangelicals who have much to repent for, and something to be grateful for. Theologically conservative evangelicals can be thankful for the prophetic remnant of pastors and lay leaders who in the face of ostracism and shame stood up for the true gospel of grace and thus against the evils of a Christianity wrapped around the Confederate flag.

By / Mar 28

In just a few days, over 3,500 church members and leaders will gather with us in Memphis for MLK50: Gospel Reflections from the Mountaintop in order to commemorate 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

We know many of you cannot come in person, but I want to invite you to join us for our mainstage sessions via the live simulcast. Here are a few of the amazing talks you’ll have access to:

Tuesday

Session 1: 1:00-3:00 p.m.

Keynote 1 | Black and White and Red All Over: Why Racial Justice Is a Gospel Issue | Russell Moore

Session 2: 3:30-5:20 p.m.

Brief Talk 1 | Equipping the Next Generation to Embrace Gospel Diversity | Jackie Hill Perry

Session 3: 7:00-9:30 p.m.

Keynote 5 | The Civil Rights Movement 50 Years after MLK: An Interview with Russell Moore | John Perkins

Panel 3 | Civil Rights Storytellers with Sandy Willson (Moderator), John Perkins, Melvin Charles Smith, James Netters, and Beverly Robertson

Wednesday

Session 4: 8:30-10:00 a.m.

Keynote 6 | A House Divided Cannot Stand: Understanding and Overcoming the Inconsistencies in White Evangelicals on Racial Issues | Matt Chandler

Session 5: 10:30-11:35 a.m.

Panel 4 | The State of Racial Tension in America with Collin Hansen (Moderator), Christina Edmondson, Justin Giboney, Juan Sanchez, and Benjamin Watson

Session 6: 7:00-9:40 p.m.

Keynote 8 | The Glory of God and Racial Unity | John Piper

On April 3, head to mlk50conference.com/live/ and watch at your convenience. You will also be able to rewind the livestream once it has begun. You do not need to pre-register, but I recommend you take a look at the entire schedule here and set some calendar reminders so you don’t miss anything!

We look forward to having you be a part of the conference from wherever you are in the world, via your own computer, tablet, or phone. Use the hashtag #MLK50conference to see what others are saying about the conference.

By / Mar 27

Racial unity is a gospel issue and all the more urgent 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. The anniversary of King’s tragic death marks an opportunity for Christians to reflect on the state of racial unity in the church and the culture. It creates the occasion to reflect on where Christians have been and look ahead to where we must go as we pursue racial unity in the midst of tremendous tension.

So, we’d love for you to join the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and The Gospel Coalition at a special event, MLK50: Gospel Reflections from the Mountaintop, taking place April 3-4, 2018, in Memphis, Tennessee. Key speakers include Matt Chandler, Jackie Hill Perry, Eric Mason, Russell Moore, John Piper, Benjamin Watson, and many others.

Here are six special features of the MLK50 conference that we pray will make it a unique and culture-transforming experience.

  1. Corporate prayer and lament: One of the most important aspects of the conference will be Tuesday night when we close with a time of corporate prayer and lament. We will pray for healing in our country, repent of our failures in the past, and ask the Lord to work through our churches to bring about racial unity. All speakers and advisors will be invited on stage for this special moment.
  2. Dream Forward Scholarship Initiative: Throughout our listening sessions with national and local leaders, investing in educational opportunities was a recurring theme. As a result, we will unveil this new scholarship initiative, which brings together over 15 Christian colleges and seminaries who have committed a significant value in scholarships to invest in the next generation of minority leaders from the Memphis region.
  3. Investing in Memphis: We want to leave a lasting impact on Memphis. Rather than trying to manufacture something on our own, we will take up an offering to support the remarkable work of the Memphis Christian Pastors Network. They are a key Christian group investing in the racial unity of the city.
  4. Memphis leadership consultation: Throughout the planning of our event, we have stayed in close consultation with the National Civil Rights Museum, representatives of the King family, local Memphis pastors, civic leaders, and law enforcement officers to ensure support for our efforts and coordinate our plans in a way that meshes well with other activities happening in the city.
  5. Memphis city-wide participation: We will pause all programming on April 4th from 4-7 pm to enable our attendees to join the city at the Lorraine Motel for the solemn moment when the bells are tolled at 6:01 pm to honor the passing of MLK.
  6. Memphis involvement: Our conference will include more than 10 local Memphis speakers, as well as performances from the Tennessee Mass Choir. There are also hundreds of local attendees from dozens of Memphis churches.

We would love to see you in Memphis for this historic event. But if you can’t be with us in person, you can join us via live simulcast. You can visit mlk50conference.com for more information.

By / Mar 26

“I want to adopt from Africa.”

The first time my wife said this, I secretly hoped that if I ignored it, she would move on to some other idea that was less threatening to me.

She never moved on. So we moved forward. A white family bringing home a black child.

In the spring of 2007, I had to begin exploring the nature of my fear. I wasn’t afraid of adoption. We had already done that. But the last time, we brought home a white baby. Turns out, I was afraid of being the white father of a black son. It wasn’t because I thought that being white was better than being black. I just didn’t know anything about being black, and I was afraid I would let down any young black kid who ever called me “Dad”. It sounds silly, but I had never even touched a black person’s hair before—and now I was supposed to teach my son how to take care of his?

“Separate but equal” isn’t best

As most white kids that grew up in the South in the 1980s and 90s, the faint remnants of a much more explicit racist past bubbled up to the surface from time to time in the form of a comment or a joke from others. I remember one relative saying to me, “Separate but equal is best.” Even as a kid, I couldn’t understand how separation would ever result in equality. I remember watching “The Cosby Show” and feeling like that could be my family. I remember when I had my first black friend. I knew something wasn’t right about “separate but equal.” I knew that anyone who used that phrase really just meant “separate” and didn’t care about “equal.”

But even with all of those small moments of revelation in my life, I never pushed against it practically. I kept myself separate from black people. It was easy. I was a part of the majority in a majority culture. Years later, through my fear when my wife first told me she wanted to adopt a black baby, I realized that even though I scoffed at the idea of “separate but equal,” I had been living it passively.

My parents didn’t ever say much to me about Dr. King. Neither did my teachers or pastors. I didn’t read Letter from Birmingham Jail until just a few years ago. That’s where Dr. King—and the Lord, too—confronted my passivity with these words:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in this 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 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.”

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.

Becoming an extremist

In that paragraph, I saw myself—a white moderate. And if Dr. King was right, I was a greater stumbling block to justice than the overtly racist Ku Klux Klan. It was the white moderate pastors who called Dr. King “an extremist”. In reply, Dr. King roll-called faithful people from biblical and church history in Hebrews 11 style.

Jesus–an extremist for love

Amos–an extremist for justice

Paul–an extremist for the spread of the gospel

Martin Luther, John Bunyan, Abraham Lincoln–all extremists

“So the question is not whether we will be extremists,” King wrote, “but what kind of extremists will we be? Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”

Dr. King was saying that Christians are to be extremists for love. And love creates. It doesn’t destroy, or tear down. It creates. Love fulfills the cultural mandate that God gave human beings at the creation of the world. Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the Earth. Take the Garden into the wilderness. Create instead of destroy.

Now, thanks to God’s Word and his Spirit, and through the words of Dr. King, I have committed my life to being a “creative extremist”. Not only that, but as a white pastor, I am committed to leaving behind the moderation that passively allows for systemic racism to go unchecked behind the guise of “keeping order.”

As a creative extremist, that doesn’t mean destroying; it means building up. It means sacrificing and laying aside my own privilege for others, especially for my black brothers and sisters—and son. It means leading my church, with varying opinions on systemic racism, through difficult waters. It means openly talking about it and seeking opportunities to think deeply and act creatively regarding race and justice.

That’s why all of our elders and staff and some of our members will be at MLK50—to commemorate Dr. King’s legacy, to learn from other creative extremists, and to sit down together over three days, planning, praying, and asking the Lord to make our church a bunch of creative extremists. We have a long way to go, but, there is a rejection of passivity and privilege that I see happening in my heart, in my family, and in our church that I believe will bear fruit in our city, state, and country.

I’m so glad the Lord awakened me to my passivity, especially in my family. Now, one of my favorite moments of the day is my children’s bedtime. My two youngest sons–one black and one white–share a room together. When I turn their light off, I kiss them each on the head. Nothing lights up my heart more than leaning toward the two inches of curls on top of my 11-year-old’s head and feeling it brush up against my cheeks as I kiss him goodnight. It reminds me how perfect love drives out fear, and that being together is so much better than “separate but equal.”

Racial unity is a gospel issue and all the more urgent 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. Register for “MLK50: Gospel Reflections from the Mountaintop,” taking place April 3-4, 2018, in Memphis, Tennessee, here.

By / Feb 13

Are you looking for ways to make racial unity a centerpiece of your ministry? Are you a seminary student looking to earn course credit?

On April 3-4, The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, in partnership with The Gospel Coalition, is hosting MLK50 in Memphis, Tenn., to explore the themes of race, faith, and racial unity in light of the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death.

In conjunction with the conference, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary are offering course credit for students who wish to attend the conference and earn credits toward their degree.

Students will learn how to understand the historical circumstances that have contributed to racial tensions in the United States and reflect theologically on a Christian response to these tensions.

Southern Seminary

Under the teaching of ERLC staff, including Russell Moore and Phillip Bethancourt, the course will consist of several components to facilitate learning goals. Students will read primary sources such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s  A Testament of Hope alongside contemporary reflections on race and faith including John Piper’s Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and The Christian and Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention by Kevin Jones and Jarvis Williams. Additional reading is also required.

Students will attend lectures that begin the morning of the conference on April 3. The course will also include online videos and written assignments to be completed after the conference.

Individuals who are not students at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and are interested in this course should complete the Conference Course Application digitally and email it to [email protected]. They should then register for the conference at the following link. SBTS students should select the course through Canvas: 29477-CT: Studies in Ethics: MLK50.

All expenses related to the course (food, transportation, and housing) are the responsibility of the student in addition to tuition costs through SBTS.

Southeastern Seminary

Southeastern’s class will be led by Dr. Brent Aucoin and Dr. Walter R. Strickland II. Southeastern students can take the course as a Theology (THE) elective, or and Historical Theology (HTH) elective. Course sections are available for Bachelor’s and Master’s level students.

Graduate Course Codes:

  • HIS7200.CONF-SP2018
  • THE7900.CONF-SP2018

Undergraduate Course Codes:

  • HIS4990.CONF-SP2018
  • THE4900.CONF-SP2018

In addition to registering for the conference, students must register for Southeastern’s course at this link.

Reading for Southeastern’s class includes Clayborne Carson (ed.), The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2001); C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990); and Mark Noll, God and Race in American Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008)

For more information about Southeastern’s course, please contact: [email protected]