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To Save the Soul of the Nation: Martin Luther King, Jr., Christian America, and the Religious Left

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Part of the Palgrave Studies in the History of Social Movements book series (PSHSM)

Abstract

Martin Luther King, Jr. argued that America was a Christian nation. What happens when we examine his rhetoric from that contested category? The rhetoric found in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” emphasized rights inherent in the created order. He appears to believe the federal government plays a crucial role in God’s divine plan, but King frames the issue in light of the eighth-century prophets, Paul, and Augustine. Their demands required the nation to be attuned to God’s demands. This essay explores how the emphasis on America’s divine calling framed King’s prophetic engagement on issues like segregation, poverty, and the Vietnam War.

Keywords

  • Religious Left
  • Christian America
  • National Association For The Advancement Of Colored People (NAACP)
  • Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)
  • Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The historiography of the Religious Right would suggest a more complicated understanding than I state here. Bob Jones University for example gave up on influencing the nation from its early formation and in fact fought a bitter battle with the Internal Revenue Service over its tax-exempt status and its policies on interracial dating.

  2. 2.

    Andrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

  3. 3.

    Kelly Miller , “Radicals and Conservatives,” in Radicals & Conservatives and Other Essays on the Negro in America (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 25.

  4. 4.

    Ibid., 2–27, 40.

  5. 5.

    Kelly Miller , “Religion as a Solvent,” in Radicals & Conservatives and Other Essays on the Negro in America (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 153.

  6. 6.

    Carol Anderson, Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944–1955 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003). More recently, Anderson has emphasized that the NAACP did retain a leftist position on anticolonialism, even if its leaders did not associate the organization to larger currents of the radical left in the form of W.E.B. Du Bois’s communist sympathies. See Carol Anderson, Bourgeois Radicals: The NAACP and the Struggle for Colonial Liberation, 1941–1960 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

  7. 7.

    Adam Fairclough, “The Preachers and the People: The Origins and Early Years of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 1955–1959,” The Journal of Southern History 52, no. 3 (1986): 410.

  8. 8.

    See David L. Chappell, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).

  9. 9.

    Ralph David Abernathy, And The Walls Came Tumbling Down: An Autobiography (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1989), 144, 147–149; for a broader understanding of Montgomery see Adam Fairclough, “The Preachers and the People”.

  10. 10.

    The origin story of MIA has taken on a mythical nature. Considering that all parties had a vested interest in being heroes in the Montgomery story, I have used Abernathy’s telling since he gained the less from events. It is clear that he envisioned how the organization would work and the goals to be negotiated but received almost no credit for any of it at the time.

  11. 11.

    Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1986), 190.

  12. 12.

    Ibid., 207.

  13. 13.

    Ibid., 210–211.

  14. 14.

    Ibid., 196–197.

  15. 15.

    Ibid., 198.

  16. 16.

    Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Struggle: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 239–241; David P. Cline, From Reconciliation to Revolution: The Student Interracial Ministry, Liberal Christianity, and the Civil Rights Movement (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), viii.

  17. 17.

    “Debate with James J. Kilpatrick on ‘The Nation’s Future’ [New York, NY] November 26, 1960,” The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., vol. V: Threshold of a New Decade, January 1959–December 1960, ed. Clayborne Carson et al. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), footnote 3, 556.

  18. 18.

    William P. Hustwit, James J. Kilpatrick: Salesman for Segregation (University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 110–112.

  19. 19.

    Douglas E. Thompson, Richmond’s Priest and Prophets: Race, Religion, and Social Change in the Civil Rights Era (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2017), 103.

  20. 20.

    This approach is not all that different from the recent Hobby Lobby case (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. 2014) where the assertion made by Hobby Lobby is that the owners’ religious beliefs, protected under the First Amendment free exercise clause, prohibited their ability to provide payment under the Affordable Care Act for contraceptives to their women employees.

  21. 21.

    “Debate with James J. Kilpatrick ,” 559–560.

  22. 22.

    Of note here is theologian James H. Cone. He argues that Niebuhr’s influence on King to modify the latter’s understanding of sin and fallen nature of humanity meant “Niebuhr was unquestionably the theologian who shaped King’s ideas regarding sin and its relations to group power.” James H. Cone, Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or A Nightmare (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991), 30. See also David Garrow, “The Intellectual Development of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Influences and Commentaries,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 40, no. 4 (1986): 5–20.

  23. 23.

    Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr ” June 1954, in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., vol. II: Rediscovering Precious Values, July 1951–November 1955, ed. Clayborne Carson et al. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 278–279.

  24. 24.

    Matthew Harper, The End of Days: African American Religion and Politics in the Age of Emancipation (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 16–17; also Chap. 2 does a good job of explaining how the role of the federal government fit into theological orientations for African Americans.

  25. 25.

    “Debate with James J. Kilpatrick ,” 558.

  26. 26.

    Martin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can’t Wait (New York: Mentor [Penguin Books], 1964), 77.

  27. 27.

    Ibid.

  28. 28.

    Ibid., 93.

  29. 29.

    Ibid., 94.

  30. 30.

    “8th Annual Conventional: ‘Annual Report Delivered at the Eighth Annual Conventional of SCLC,” August 29, 1964/October 2, 1964. The Morehouse College Martin Luther King, Jr. Collection at the Robert W. Woodruff Library of the Atlanta University Center, Inc. Series 6: Southern Christian Leadership Conference Organizational Records (1957–1971) 6.1.0.480.017.

  31. 31.

    Highly significant contributions toward the study of King’s later career include Thomas F. Jackson, From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006); Michael K. Honey, Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Last Campaign (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007); and Martin Luther King, Jr., “All Labor Has Dignity”, ed. Michael Honey (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2011).

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Thompson, D.E. (2018). To Save the Soul of the Nation: Martin Luther King, Jr., Christian America, and the Religious Left. In: Danielson, L., Mollin, M., Rossinow, D. (eds) The Religious Left in Modern America. Palgrave Studies in the History of Social Movements. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-73120-9_8

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-73120-9_8

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