In “Parting the Waters,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning story of the early years of the civil rights movement, Taylor Branch describes some of the differences between Dr. Martin Luther King’s goals and those of the NAACP. King, following the teachings of Gandhi, was hoping to do more than merely put an end to segregation. He wanted to bring about what Christians call a “conversion experience.”
King believed, and rightly so, that racism is a spiritual condition. It is more than just a set of ideas that a person may agree or disagree with. It is a deep-seated perspective on the nature of reality. People who are racist don’t just believe that their race is superior; they know it.
King was convinced that the only way to change an attitude so deeply rooted in human nature was through divine intervention. He believed nonviolent demonstrations and passive nonresistance would expose the evil of racism and the resulting segregation. By bringing it into the light, people would see just how wrong it was and would repent and turn away from it.
The leaders of the NAACP of that day, while appreciating and valuing King’s commitment to nonviolence, were nevertheless more earthbound with their goals. They saw the harsh realities of segregation in terms of political and economic power. Approaching the problem from a practical standpoint, they believed the way to end segregation and its resulting oppression was to change the law.
History has demonstrated that both King and the NAACP were right. Segregation as a social disorder was so deeply rooted in our culture that the force of law was the only way it would end. And racism, as a spiritual disorder, is so deeply rooted in human consciousness that nothing short of a conversion experience can change a person’s mind and heart.
Fortunately, the law changed. Racial discrimination and segregation are no longer legal. The impact of this change in the law on the African-American community has been profound. Significant gains have been made economically, educationally, as well as politically – not the least of which is our current president. We are not where we need to be, but at least the law is no longer an impediment to racial equality.
Unfortunately, King’s dream of seeing a nation united rather than divided by race has not made as much progress. Partly because of the political and legal victories, and partly because of his death, the emphasis on the spiritual nature of racism slipped out of focus. Finding ways to change the minds and hearts of people about race remains the unfinished business of the civil rights movement.
This, sadly, is where we find elements of the Tea Party movement. Recently, as members of Congress were gathering to hear President Obama speak about health care reform, two black congressmen were verbally assaulted by numerous Tea Party protestors. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia had the n-word hurled at him. And Rep. Emanuel Cleaver from Missouri had someone spit on him.
This sad debacle serves to remind us that we need to finish what King started. With the best of our faith, and with the courage of our trust in God, we must provoke repentance away from racism, and conversion toward the ideal that all persons are created equal. After all, unless we root racism out of our hearts, there is no way to be sure that the law will hold.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.
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James L. Evans is a retired Baptist preacher living in Alabama. Over 35 years, he served churches in Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia. In support of his pastoral work, Evans published 5 books including “First and Second Corinthians: Immersion Bible Studies” (Abingdon Press (2011).