Christians, MLK Day, and Historical Amnesia

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

On the second day of Martin Luther King Jr.’s imprisonment in a Birmingham jail, a guard slipped him a copy of the morning paper. By the dim light of his cell, King read the tall black letters that headlined the second page: WHITE CLERGYMEN URGE LOCAL NEGROES TO WITHDRAW FROM DEMONSTRATIONS. 

Eight Alabama pastors had penned a statement entitled “A Call for Unity” in which they expressed basic agreement with King regarding integration and Jim Crow, but took issue with his methods, arguing protests and sit-ins represented the sort of “extreme measures” that only incited racial tensions. This appeal to Christian unity and “law and order and common sense” found resonance among many of Birmingham’s white Christians. 

In response, Martin Luther King wrote his famous “Letter From The Birmingham Jail,” which has become a standard entry in freshman writing and rhetoric classes. His words are as relevant today as they were in 1963:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not . . . the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace, which is the 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 direction 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. . . . We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.

People in schools and churches across the country will pay homage to Martin Luther King Jr. today, and many will read “Letter From The Birmingham Jail,” which is right and good. 

But few will read “A Call for Unity” or any of the thousands of editorials, letters, articles, and sermons composed by American whites—most of them Christians—in opposition to King’s work.  We forget that just as our most heated discussions on social media emerge from the context of a cultural conversation, so too did the treatises of theologians and activists past.  When we familiarize ourselves with only one side of the debate (typically the side ultimately found to be just) we miss the full depth of the argument and, worse yet, slip into a sort of historical amnesia that allows us to believe we too would have chosen the side of good on account of its seemingly obvious virtue. 

Everyone does this of course, but today I want to focus on how we Christians in particular tend to whitewash history, a phenomenon recently explored by blogger Neil Carter in a post engaging Tim Keller’s book, The Reason For God. 

In The Reason For God, Keller argues that Christians have served on the front lines of nearly every social movement toward morality and justice in modern Western civilization, including the abolition of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement in America, which is certainly true given the religious demographics of Western and American culture. But as Carter rightly notes, there’s no denying the reality that these Christians faced their most adamant (and violent) opposition, not from atheists or Muslims or Hindus...but from other Christians. Reducing the struggles of the past to conflict between “the Christians” and “the culture” disregards the fact that slavery, Jim Crow, Native American removal, and all sorts of racial and gender inequalities have all flourished in a supposedly Christian culture. 

Of course it is just as erroneous when (some) atheists claim religion serves only as an impediment social justice. After all, Dr. King was a devout Christian who masterfully appealed to Scripture to comfort the oppressed and challenge their oppressors. To downplay the sincerity of his faith, and the faith of many who have worked for justice and compassion through the centuries, dishonors their legacy in another way. 

But it cannot be forgotten that Christian ministers wrote nearly half of all defenses of slavery in the buildup to the Civil War, and that many segregationists cited religious freedom to justify their opposition to integrating private Christian schools. Dr. King was not as universally beloved at the time of his assassination as he is now and in 1966 carried a 63% disapproval rating. It seems it’s much easier for white people to sing the praises of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and other civil rights leaders when they are dead than when they are alive and making us uncomfortable. 

This is why I believe it’s so important to study both historical religious arguments supporting the abolition of slavery and historical religious arguments opposing the abolition of slavery (see my post on Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis” for a sampling), as well as historical religious arguments supporting desegregation and historical religious arguments opposing desegregation—not because I believe both sides are equal, but because the patterns of argumentation that emerge are so unnervingly familiar: 

The Bible is declared "clear" on a matter to oppose any challenge to the status quo. 

Those disrupting social norms are said to be threatening the peace and Christian unity.

Sympathy may be expressed for the plight of the oppressed, but their methods of protest are criticized as “disruptive” or “uncivil.” 

Civil rights are opposed on the grounds of religious freedom. 

Those calling attention to systemic injustice are accused of inciting tensions rather than simply calling them out. 

Deaths are justified because the dead brought it on themselves by committing some infraction. (I'm thinking here of the similarity between justifications for lynchings in the past and justifications for police brutality in the present.) 

And on and on it goes. 

It’s easy to comfort ourselves with the thought that Christians of the past were only using religion and Scripture to support their oppression, but in truth those Christians rarely saw it that way. Often the difference between using Scripture to justify injustice and appealing to Scripture to support the truth proves clearest in hindsight. Pride, privilege, and confirmation bias are formidable adversaries on the path to justice, which is why we must familiarize ourselves with past justifications for oppression or inaction lest we make the same mistakes again. 

We see all of this play out today as Liberty University observes MLK Day by hosting Donald Trump as its convocation speaker. Trump has enjoyed wide support from white supremacist groups on account of his hateful rhetoric regarding Muslims and immigrants, and the Republican frontrunner has shared bogus crime statistics from white nationalist Web sites to oppose the #BlackLivesMatter movement and stir up fear of black people. 

When protestors questioned Liberty’s timing, officials responded by saying they plan to honor Martin Luther King Jr. as they do every year with a short tribute video.

It would be funny if it weren’t so insulting.  (Note: Some Liberty students plan to hold a protest outside the event.) 

I suspect that missing from the tribute video will be any acknowledgement of the fact that the founder of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell, vehemently opposed the work of Martin Luther King Jr, publicly condemned him as a communist, and delivered an impassioned sermon the day after King's march to Selma opposing civil rights marchers as “left wing leaders” whose only aim was to stir up racial tensions and violence. Missing also will be any mention of the fact that Falwell and other conservative evangelicals fought tooth and nail against the 1978 ruling that stripped tax-exempt status from all-white private schools formed in reaction to integration, calling it a violation of their religious freedom. (For more on Liberty’s history of racism, see “When Donald Trump goes to Liberty U” by Stephen Prothero.) 

Inviting a white supremacist to speak on MLK day and then supposing that a short tribute video will make up for it shows just how real and pervasive the “shallow understanding” and “lukewarm acceptance” King warned about remains a part of white Christian culture.  

So, white folks, before you share that MLK quote on Facebook or join in a service project today, ask yourself: 

Would I have disobeyed the instructions of my pastor and walked alongside black protestors in Birmingham? 

Would I have risked being seen as a troublemaker by friends and family for joining a movement that landed many of its participants in jail? 

Would I have been willing to sacrifice my reputation as a “Bible-believing Christian” by rejecting biblical arguments used to support segregation and oppose civil disobedience? 

Am I ready to consider how I might be complicit in similar injustices today? 

I wish I could be more certain my own answer would be yes. 


Additional Resources: 

Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Epic Challenge to the Church by Edward Gilbreath

Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith by Mae Elise Cannon, Lisa Sharon Harper, Troy Jackson, and Soong-Chan Rah


The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander




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