Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

King Bibliography

My King Day post has prompted a few private emails requesting a bibliography of good books on King. I am happy to comply. I am among those with a limited book budget, so my first advice is always to start with public and university libraries, then visit used book stores (always fun) and, when visiting Amazon.com, look and see if there are used copies–especially for the more expensive books.


There are numerous biographies of King, but many are written for children or are hagiographic (reinforcing the plastic saint mistake) or have numerous factual errors due to poor research.  But there are 2 excellent one-volume biographies on King:

David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. ad the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (Vintage Books, 1986) which won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature.

Stephen B. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Harper & Row, 1982).

If you have time and can either afford it or have access to library copies, I also highly recommend the 3-volume work by Taylor Branch which chronicles King’s public life in the context of the wider social history of the U.S. at the same time.

Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 (Simon & Schuster, 1988).

Taylor Branch, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-1965 (Simon & Schuster, 1998).

Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968 (Simon & Schuster, 2006).

Although I do not agree with all of his applications for today, I highly recommend Michael Eric Dyson’s I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr.  (The Free Press, 2000).

Similar to Dyson, but more in the spirit of King himself is Vincent Harding’s slim volume, Martin Luther King, Jr: The Inconvenient Hero (Orbis Books, 1986).  Harding is an African-American Mennonite minister and historian who lived around the corner from the Kings for years and was a major behind-the-scenes player in the Movement. He is also one of the creators of the Black Studies programs in U.S. universities and one of the most renowned historians of Black America and of movements for social progress in North America.  This book is a series of essays and sermons that Harding wrote in preparation for making King’s birthday into a national holiday–and the way this was already taming King’s legacy.

King’s theology:

Early writings on King’s theology (mostly by liberal whites) tended to root him only in Northern white liberal theology, missing his Southern Black Church roots almost completely.  In reality, King, like many African-American Christians during segregation, was raised in a conservative evangelical context (but, unlike many white evangelicals, African American evangelicals tend to be liberal to radical in their politics–and sometimes wonder aloud if their white sisters and brothers in the faith read the same Bible!). As many of us do in adolescence, he questioned some of the more conservative tenets–even calling it fundamentalist–and only in college did he manage to put his questions about the ministry in place. As with other prominent African-American theologians and theologically educated pastors of his era, King fused the best of white liberalism (especially the Social Gospel) with traditional Black Church faith. Remember, that during this era most white evangelical seminaries were segregated–both North and South–and even many liberal seminaries and universities had strict quotas on black enrollment! I have sometimes wondered if the rise of Black Church conservatism (including adopting the “health and wealth” gospel) in the ’80s and ’90s came from more African-American seminary students attending white evangelical seminaries instead of liberal seminaries–and that the theology peddled at these white evangelical schools did not promote struggles for social justice. (The faculties of historic African-American seminaries continued to be populated by theologians who earned Ph.Ds. at liberal institutions.)

Later studies of King’s theology showed more knowledge of how rooted he was in the Black Church–and have usually been written by African-Americans.  I recommend especially:

Lewis V. Baldwin, There is a Balm in Gilead: The Cultural Roots of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Fortress, 1991).  Baldwin’s sequel, To Make the Wounded Whole: The Cultural Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Fortress, 1992) shows how King has influenced following generations of African-American theologians.

Noel Leo Erskine, an Afro-Carribbean theologian, places King’s thought in the context of the major writing theologians of his era and subsequently  in King Among the Theologians (Pilgrim Press, 1994).

The two pioneers of Black Liberation Theology have both written important books on King:

James H. Cone, Martin, Malcolm, and America: A Dream or a Nightmare? (Orbis Books,1991) is an excellent comparison and contrast of the lives and thinking of King and Malcolm X, including ways they began to influence each other toward the end of each of their lives.  Written by the first pioneer of Black Liberation Theology.

J. Deotis Roberts, Bonhoeffer and King: Speaking Truth to Power (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2005) compares and contrasts two of the major activist theologians of the 20th C. in times of great peril–and two of the forerunners of political and liberation theologies. Written by the second (and, in my view, more powerfully Christian) major pioneer of Black Liberation Theology.

King in Context:

A. The post WWII “Civil Rights” or Black Freedom Movement.

Good histories of the modern civil rights era are legion. For every one I recommend here, a dozen more could be mentioned.

First, if you haven’t watched it, see the PBS series, Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years.  You can check it out of most major public libraries and arrange viewings in local churches. It is essential viewing, especially for those not then alive.  PBS has it here and includes guides for teachers, primary sources, etc.  The senior historical advisor was Vincent Harding.

Then read The Eyes on the Prize Reader containing documents, speeches, and writings from the Movement.

Also helpful is Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer, eds., Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s. (Bantam, 1991).

That’s enough for this post. I’ll list primary sources (King’s own writings) in a subsequent post. Also, no social movement is isolated unto itself: the Civil Rights movement was influenced by the abolitionist movement and the labor movement and the movement for women’s suffrage–as well as by Gandhi’s nonviolent movement to liberate India. (Black-owned newspapers covered Gandhi extensively beginning in the 1920s and Gandhians came to the U.S. and African-American leaders to India–spreading Gandhi’s tactics, successes and failures throughout much of the educated strata of pre-1954 Black America.) Movements to throw off American and European Colonialism from the end of WWII through the 1960s also influenced the Civil Rights movement–and vice versa. (King linked these struggles globally often, especially in his 1964 Acceptance Speech for the Nobel Peace Prize.)  In turn, the Civil Rights movement influenced Cesar Chavez and the struggle for migrant worker justice (which developed into the Latino civil rights movement), the second women’s movement, the peace movement, the gay rights movement, the movement for international human rights, the global movement to end apartheid in South Africa, to end U.S. sponsored dictatorships in Latin America, to end Soviet oppression of Jews and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the movements for freedom in Eastern Europe (they sang “We Shall Overcome” as the Berlin Wall fell) and for a free Palestine–all were influenced in both positive and negative ways by the Civil Rights movement.  The Green Movement for the Environment, the global movement to abolish the death penalty, and the movement to abolish all nuclear weapons, also have roots in the  Civil Rights movement (though also having other influences).

January 23, 2008 Posted by | MLK | 5 Comments

MLK, Jr.: Nonviolent Radical for Our Time

mlk_gandhi.jpgToday is the official U.S. holiday for the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (15 January 1929-04 April 1968) who was assassinated 40 years ago this coming April. In the generation which has passed in the meantime, King has been tamed: turned into “the Dreamer.”  Though more biographies and studies of his life and work have been written than with any other African-American leader (itself a disservice to the hundreds of leaders and thousands of forgotten participants in the so-called “Civil Rights” movement), few Americans know anything about King other than the first 4 words of his most famous speech, “I have a dream,” delivered as the climax of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Almost no one could summarize much of the contents of that dream–beyond vagaries like “racial harmony.”  So, although its rhetoric is among the most stirring political speeches in the English language, count me among those who call for a moratorium on the Dream Speech–and, more importantly, a moratorium on the icon of “King the Dreamer.”  A part of my Ph.D. dissertation was on King and I have written one slim book on the civil rights movement, so I know what I am talking about when I say: The Real Martin Luther King, Jr. was far more radical than the icon–and it is the radical King whom we need to recover today.

King’s vision for U.S. society was always more than simply racial “integration.” He knew the system as it was then and is now was/is unjust and that Black assimilation into such a system would just make things worse.  He ALWAYS wanted to change the system beyond just ending the legal segregation–as important as that was.  But in the years following the Dream Speech, the radical dimensions of King’s vision became more pronounced:

  • The real Martin Luther King, Jr. was a class warrior against an unjust economic system. Although he rejected many of the answers of Marxism, he found much of Marx’s critique of capitalism valid. Increasingly, he called himself a democratic socialist–of the kind he had found in Scandinavia when he journeyed to Oslo, Norway in 1964 to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. (King’s Nobel Acceptance Speech should be required reading in all U.S. high schools.) He wanted American to turn from materialism (what he called a “thing oriented society”) to a person-centered society–a move that he called a “revolution of values.” During his last year of life, King was planning a different kind of March on Washington, as part of a massive “Poor People’s Campaign” that would unite African-Americans, Latino/as, Native Americans, and poor whites (especially from Appalachia and Mississippi–America’s 3rd World, then and now) and demand the kinds of changes that would abolish poverty–though he knew it would cost a huge amount of money. King himself took only $1 per year as salary for leading the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a modest salary as a pastor. He donated most of his speaking fees to the SCLC.  He divided up his Nobel Prize money between the 4 largest civil rights organizations–and his wife, Corretta, had to demand that he set aside a small amount in a fund for his kids’ education.  He constantly linked the fortunes of African-Americans with the strength of the Labor movement. When he was assassinated in Memphis on 04 April 1968, he was helping out a campaign for the rights of city garbage workers. 
  • The real Martin Luther King, Jr. was committed to peacemaking. As his “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” essay makes clear (you can find it reprinted as a chapter in Why We Can’t Wait (1964) and in his book of sermons, Strength to Love (1965) ), he was not always a pacifist–not in his youth and early education.  And he began working with Gandhian nonviolence as a mere tactic in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but was prepared to use violent self-defense in his personal life. But this soon changed, under the influence of reading Gandhi and from pacifist interpretations of Jesus mediated to King by members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (especially the white Methodist preacher Glenn Smiley and the African American Quaker Bayard Rustin). Most people never understood this: They expected that King, as a good American and as one who wanted the alliance of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson in passing civil rights legislation, would support the U.S. war effort in Vietnam–or, at least remain silent. He tried the latter. In the early days, Corretta spoke out far more against Vietnam than Martin did. (She was a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom since her days at Antioch College, long before meeting Martin.) When he did speak out, many other civil rights leaders told him to be quiet and he tried to obey–until he could silence his conscience no longer and on 04 April 1967 (one year before his death) gave his famous “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” speech at the founding of Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam at Riverside Church in NY. In that speech King said that he could never again tell young men in gangs to stop their violence if he didn’t confront the greatest purveyor of violence in the world–“my own government.” This lost him Johnson’s friendship and support and led J. Edgar Hoover to call King “the most dangerous Negro in America.”
  • The real King, unlike one of his daughters, was not homophobic. He did not speak out on gay rights–no one did in those days–but he knew that one of his closest advisors, Bayard Rustin, was gay.  After his death and the rise of the modern gay rights movement, Corretta Scott King championed it bravely.
  • The real Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a complete contrast to Malcolm X or the later Black Power movement. Yes, King criticized the Black Power movement, but his criticism was not total and he sought to remain in dialogue with its leaders like Stokely Carmichael.  His chapter on black empowerment in his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? criticizes the violent rhetoric and the separatism of the Black Power movement, but praises its emphasis on black self-sufficiency and Black Pride.

But the real Martin Luther King, Jr. was also no plastic saint. The icon is dangerous not only because it is tamed, but also because it makes King seem perfect–and thus an impossible standard for movement leaders. But the real King, despite his many sterling qualities, was human and flawed, as are we all.:

  • The real Martin Luther King, Jr. was a chain smoker, though he kept it mostly off camera. He tried often to quit and failed. (This is somewhat more tolerated by Black Baptists in their pastors than by white Baptists, but it was still considered a major failing in many parts of Baptist life.)
  • The real Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a faithful husband, but had several extramarital affairs–short and longterm.  We know of these mostly because the FBI bugged his hotel rooms and tried to use the tapes of him having sex to extort or scare both him and Corretta. But, sadly, friends and associates mostly tried to cover this up or apologize for it, rather than confront King as friends who were concerned about his marriage.  He needed a community of accountability and didn’t have one.
  • The real Martin Luther King, Jr. was a sexist who was always trying to keep Corretta from being an equal partner in both their marriage and in the movement. This was typical of most men of this pre-feminist era–indeed, the modern women’s movement can be traced to the dissents by the women, black and white, who were demeaned in the struggle for racial equality.
  • The real Martin Luther King, Jr. was subject to depression and to doubts about himself, about God and his faith, and about the movement and his role in it. The confident face he showed to the world did not always reflect his doubts and struggles and wrestlings with himself and God.
  • The real Martin Luther King, Jr. could be high-handed, even dictatorial, in the way he ran the SCLC.  Other organizations, especially the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council (SNCC, pronounced “SNICK”) and their advisor, Ella Baker, dissented from this personality-driven approach to mass movements. The SNCC students often mocked King as “De Lawd,” and Baker’s slogan was “Strong People Don’t Need Strong Leaders.”

I think we need Martin Luther King, Jr. today as much or more than when he was taken from us 40 years ago. (He would have turned 79 last Tuesday.) But we don’t need King the tamed and perfect icon, King the Dreamer. We need the real, radical Martin King–both because our society needs this radical critique and much bolder vision, and because we need to develop new leaders without expecting that they will be either without flaws or always popular.  And we need to recover King in context: in the context of many others working for freedom and justice and peace–and some losing their lives for it.

We honor King’s memory not by taming it, but by letting it challenge us in all its radical fullness–and by taking up where King left off. We honor King best by rolling up our sleeves and getting into the risky work of justice and peacemaking.

January 21, 2008 Posted by | Baptists, heroes, liberation, love of enemies, MLK, nonviolence, pacifism, progressive faith, race | 5 Comments

Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.

mlking.gif39 years ago, today, Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) was assassinated in Memphis, TN.  What would he say to us, today?  Would he still say, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world is my own government?” What would he say about the gap between rich and poor, about how there are more African-Americans in prison than in college, about the failures of all political parties and ideologies? What would he say about Christians who endorse torture in the name of fighting terrorism?  Would the King who said in 1964, “I have watched my dream become a nightmare” denounce the nightmare of today’s American business imperialism? Would the King who spoke of how bombs dropped in Vietnam explode in U.S. ghettos speak of how the war in Iraq has drained resources for rebuilding New Orleans?

Would the King who was so excited about movements of African independence from colonialism in the ’60s have harsh words for the many corrupt regimes in Africa, today? What would he say to Zimbabwe or Nigeria or Sudan or Rwanda or Cote d’Ivoire?  What would he say about how global corporations make those situations worse rather than better?  What would he say about the Caribbean, especially Haiti?

What would the King who marched alongside rabbis and imams have to say about the Palestinian-Israeli crisis?

In 1963 while sitting in a Birmingham city jail, King asked about the white churches which either supported segregation openly or were silent, “Who is their God?” Would he today ask about the “god” worshipped by white Christians who deny there is still racism (or reduce it to “feelings of the heart” and deny institutional dimensions) or who foster anti-immigrant policies, or who support the death penalty?

Today, a tamed, watered down version of Martin Luther King is widely admired.  The real King was no plastic saint. He had faults–including a series of extramarital affairs, an addiction to tobacco (kept off camera), and doubts as his faith was tried in a crucible. But the real, flawed, Martin King was also the radical disciple whose radical challenges have hardly been heard by Christians in the U.S. We prefer the tamed Dreamer.

April 4, 2007 Posted by | economic justice, heroes, human rights., MLK | 10 Comments

MLK, Jr. Day

It is entirely fitting that we in the U.S.A. have a national holiday on the birthday of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), nonviolent warrior for justice and peace. Nevertheless, the WAY we celebrate Dr. King’s legacy is usually disappointing: a day off from work for many, coupled with 30-second sound-bites of the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington–not even the whole speech and no context. Politicians congratulating themselves that “we have overcome” racism even while we are busy re-segregating our schools because housing patterns remain segregated (de facto, though no longer de jure) and busing is now taboo, and even while the race gap in wages is huge, and African-American and Latino children are now routinely fast-tracked from kindergarten to prison.

Our children have a distorted view of the Freedom Movement, believing that one day Rosa Parks sat down in a ‘white’ seat on a Montgomery Bus, the next day King gave the I Have a Dream Speech in D. C. and “poof”–segregation disappeared. The numerous campaigns and the struggles of thousands of ordinary people are thus masked. And Dr. King’s increasingly radical economic views (calling himself a democratic socialist and working on a Poor People’s Campaign that would unite all races to end poverty) and ever stronger opposition to the Vietnam War (which lost him the support of President Lyndon Baines Johnson and even many other civil rights leaders who thought he had no business speaking out on foreign policy), are also hidden.

The tragedy of this is that it is precisely the radical King of 1965-1968 whom we need to remember and look to for guidance today. This was the King who pointed out the connections between government-sponsored violence and the violence of city streets, and who saw the connections between the money spent on war and the money unavailable for economic justice here. This was the King who had to be silenced.

To remember the radical King, read or listen tohis “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” speech/sermon, delivered on 04 April 1967 at Riverside Church in New York–one year to the day before he was assassinated.

Listen to former Sen. John Edwards update that speech for our time, speaking yesterday at Riverside Church.

Act on that legacy by working for justice with nonviolence: Take action with others to work for racial or economic justice or to end war. Or go beyond the struggles of King’s day and work for justice for women and GLBT persons. Defend persecuted Muslims and Arab-Americans.

And help the young get past the easy stereotypes and sound-bites. Get the Eyes on the Prize videos from your local library and watch them with your children, helping them to understand this greatest U.S. socio-drama of the 20th C. Help them notice how young many of the marchers are and help them claim their power as youth to change things.

Resolve with your children to study together the history of nonviolent social movements and the various theologies and philosophies which have undergirded it. See that Dr. King belongs in a great cloud of witnesses that, for Christian pacifists, begins with Jesus and includes people like St. Francis of Assissi, Menno Simons, George Fox, Dorothy Day, Muriel Lester, Fannie Lou Hamer, Mairead Corrigan Maguire and Betty Williams, Mubarak Awad and so many others. And study also the nonviolent warriors for justice of other faiths: Buddha and such Buddhists as Aung San Suu Kyi and the 14th Dalai Lama; Muslims like Badshah Khan, Rabia Terri Harris, Shirin Ebadi, & Muhammed Yunus; Hindus like Mohandas K. Gandhi; Jews like R. Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rabbi Lynne Gottlieb, and so many more.

Start a peacemaker group in your local church. Study the Sermon on the Mount as you begin a journey together.

Soundbites are one thing, but Dr. King’s Legacy should be so much more.

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January 15, 2007 Posted by | economic justice, heroes, human rights., MLK, nonviolence, race | 2 Comments