I often have college students do an essay on race relations and the Christian heritage in light of reading Martin Luther King, Jr. Most students express an appreciation of King’s life and work but many add: “We are glad that the issue of race relations is over. We are glad that we don’t have to work on that problem anymore.”
Ouch. Of course we have more work to do. Of course we have more to learn (and unlearn). The use of the “n” word by the chair of the board of regents at Roger Williams University is only one recent reminder that the task of racial reconciliation must be ongoing (and please forgive me if I raise my eyebrows in disbelief about his claim that this was the first time in his 80 years of life that he had uttered the word).
When reading King I want students to learn how his leadership in the Civil Rights Movement was influenced by his understanding of the Scriptures and the Christian heritage. I have them read a piece in which King speaks of learning about the social gospel, Walter Rauschenbusch and Reinhold Niebuhr. Their main assignment in this introductory course on the “Christian Heritage” is King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.
Some have read it in a high school literature class, but no matter, I want them to read it through the lenses of what they have learned that semester. King quotes Augustine and Aquinas in his theology of civil disobedience. Both Augustine and Aquinas had been covered earlier (as well as the 1823 classic defense of slavery by Southerner Richard Furman). King also references several biblical passages and the students have already had an introductory course on the Bible.
But I also want them to realize that learning about race relations comes when we get to know each other. There are elements of King’s story that we don’t understand because we have no clue about the manifold ways that discrimination took (and takes) place. I highlight the following passage about why King pressed for equality and was willing to commit civil disobedience:
“Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will …. when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading ‘white’ and ‘colored;’ when your first name becomes ‘nigger,’ your middle name becomes ‘boy’ (however old you are) and your last name becomes ‘John,’ and your wife and mother are never given the respected title ‘Mrs.’ …. then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”
And then I tell them a personal story (something profs don’t do often): I was entering the ninth grade when “bussing” was implemented in Richmond, Va., to desegregate the public schools. I attended a historically African-American school; just months before it had no white students.
Playing basketball in gym class, I thought I was fouled. In typical “neighborhood” fashion, I yelled, “You fouled me” after I had been hit on the arm shooting the ball. But play stopped and things got silent. I had not just said “you fouled me” but “you fouled me, boy.”
I had no clue that I had said something wrong. But the African-American student who fouled me looked at me with anger in his eyes and said I was in trouble. I ran, but he caught me at the other end of the gym. We were alone. He said: “You were disrespectful to me, so let me give you some advice. You need to learn that you never call a young black man a boy. Don’t ever do it again.”
I learned about dignity that day. Years later when I read King’s letter I understood what he meant.
Getting to know someone opens doors to reconciliation when the various parties are willing to learn and to fellowship. The highlight of the recent annual meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was seeing the leaders of American Baptists, Fellowship Baptists and Progressive National Baptists on the same stage. Why have we waited?
The Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant next January gives us a chance to learn and fellowship in ways that we haven’t. If you need a primer on why reconciliation is not a past event, but must be an ongoing process, read King’s letter. You won’t even need a basketball game to open your eyes.
Doug Weaver is professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Religion at Baylor University. This column appeared originally in his blog.