To Hope as Dr. King Hoped

January 18, 2019
Cornell William Brooks
HDS Visiting Scholar Cornell William Brooks. Photo: Tom Fitzsimmons.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have turned 90 this year. While his name and his contribution to the U.S. Civil Rights Movement are revered, some wonder if Dr. King’s legacy is in jeopardy amid a resurgence of racism, xenophobia, and hate crimes in the United States. Moreover, while the African American church was the foundation for King’s activism and organizing, many progressives and anti-racists see faith as an obstacle to racial justice, pointing to the conduct of some white Evangelical Christians in recent years.   

HDS Visiting Scholar Cornell William Brooks pushes back both on the doubts about King’s legacy and reports of the decline in the importance of religious communities in social justice movements. The Harvard Kennedy School Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership and Social Justice, director of the William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice, and former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—and an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church—says that people of faith have a commitment and willingness to sacrifice that is critical for successful activists. And he says that the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ought to be measured not in the persistence of racism, but in the combination of hope and realism that he brought to the struggle for the rights of marginalized people everywhere.

HDS: Polling data indicate that most Americans believe the President’s words and actions encourage white supremacy.  Recent research links racist and sexist attitudes with the way that many white voters cast their ballots in 2016. And earlier this month a prominent member of Congress wondered aloud to The New York Times, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” Does this represent a resurgence of racism more than 50 years after some of the most important victories of the Civil Rights Movement? Would Dr. King be discouraged? How might he respond?

Cornell William Brooks: I don't believe that he would be shocked and surprised that in 2019, we have a congressional representative clinging to the vestiges of white supremacy under the guise of western civilization. Dr. King understood profoundly the degree to which racism, xenophobia, bias and bigotry are deeply entrenched in the American psyche. That said, he might be disappointed at the degree to which we have apologists for racism in our society.

In the mountaintop speech in Memphis just before his assassination, Dr. King noted the enduring moral agency of his people. The sermon was a hopeful proclamation of the life that he expected us to live in the future, that “we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” He reminded us that hope is not empirically demonstrated; it's morally chosen. We choose to believe that which scripture, our tradition, our history as God's people—says about us and what it says about our future. And in the same way that he hoped, we yet hope. I yet hope.

In that light, our present disappointments are a measure of our expectations. In 1968, we didn't track hate crimes against Jews, blacks, against immigrants. We didn't track hate crimes against members of the LGBTQ community. We track these crimes today because we have an expectation that all communities should be safe, should be protected, and have rights. Our expectations are higher and, as a consequence, our disappointments are deeper. When we express moral frustration at the amount of violence in our society, it has everything to do with the fact that we believe we should live in a society where violence is a moral anachronism instead of a commonplace tragedy.

We are not where we should be, but I think much has improved. Think about marriage equality. Twenty years ago, “don't ask don't tell” was considered progress. The ability to keep to yourself how you were made in the image of God was considered progress. Now we consider that literally to be a half step in the wrong direction as opposed to acknowledging the full humanity and equality of everyone, irrespective of one's orientation or sexual identity. My point is that higher expectations lead to, in some ways, greater disappointment. But they're also a rough measure of progress.

HDS: Dr. Ibram Kendi, author of Stamped from the Beginning, The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, says that racial progress is real, but so is “racist progress.” He writes “Both racist and antiracist groups have made progress. Both forces—the racist force of inequality, and the antiracist force of equality—have progressed in rhetoric, in tactics, in policies. Both forces have drawn inspiration from America’s founding creed of liberty.” Is that a better way to think of where we are now, that there’s no single force of progress propelling us through history?

CWB: Progress with respect to the battle against bigotry and bias in all forms of human cruelty has everything to do with ongoing vigilance. Those who are militarily astute understand that the presence of peace does not suggest the obsolescence of the military. In fact, sometimes we need the military to secure and sustain the peace. For example, when there's a humanitarian crisis and the rights of people are being violated, as much as we may find it disquieting to use state violence to keep the peace, we accept as necessary an army engaged in an intervention that's protecting civilian populations.

Social justice is not unlike a military battle. It is ongoing. Once you win the war, you have to secure the peace. The fact that we got the right to vote in the 1800s with the 15th Amendment didn’t mean that we didn’t have to secure it in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act, and it does not mean today that we do not have to engage in an ongoing battle to protect the franchise, to expand the franchise, and to defeat voter suppression.

In the 1800s we had the KKK—essentially extra-judicial civilian police squads used to enforce white supremacy through terror. Why should we be surprised in these post-millennial times that police departments are often used to protect and to serve white privilege? Religious folk understand the battles that David and Saul were engaged in, they understand the battles that raged throughout the pages of the Hebrew scriptures. But somehow we’re shocked and dismayed by the battles we have to engage in today. Let us not be morally naïve when it comes to battling against bigotry, bias, all forms of human cruelty. We have to be vigilant. We have to be strong. We have to be strategic. Sacrifices will have to be made. Battles will have to be fought. That's real.

HDS: Speaking of religious folks, African American churches—often in alliance with liberal Protestant and Jewish communities—played an immense role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. What’s their role today in an era of declining church membership and the prominence of nominally secular movements like Black Lives Matter?

CWB: When you consider the social justice movements of our time—whether it’s the women's marches, the climate marches, the March for Our Lives, the movement for black lives, the movement to secure and expand the rights of the LGBTQ community, or immigrant rights—people of faith are on the front lines. They punch way above their weight. If you measure the power of faith communities in terms of impact, not merely popularity, there's nothing comparable.

Think of the battle to protect people's lives from police misconduct. Churches have led the fight. Look at Proposition 4 in Florida, where a million people with felony criminal records were re-enfranchised. Consider sentencing reform across the country, places like Texas and Louisiana, in blue states and red states, in conservative states and liberal states. Consider immigrant rights and the passage of the Trust Act in California. Religious communities were at the forefront of all of these struggles. This notion that they can be dismissed and discounted simply because Sunday morning and Saturday morning or Friday evening worship numbers are down frankly ignores the reality of what we see on the streets, in state legislatures, in Congress, across the country. Those are the facts.

HDS: What do you think accounts for the enduring strength and influence of the religious community in social justice movements?

CWB: It has to do with a sacrificial commitment and a prophetic canon that we call upon to move from the pews into the streets. There are very few communities that have the hold on their adherents that religions do. It’s one thing to have a million Twitter followers. It’s another thing to be able to put 1,000, or 10,000, or 100,000 people on the street or in the halls of Congress.

The depth of commitment that people of faith have to social justice derives not merely from a cost-benefit analysis or out of a sense of outrage when rights are transgressed or violated; it has everything to do with people believing in a God and believing that people are created in the image of God—the imago dei—and that their rights derive from their innate and God-given self-worth. It was manifested in the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and also in the Boston personalist philosophy of Dr. King and the prophetic religion of the black church from the very birth of this country forward to today.

HDS: Finally, how do you think Dr. King would want us to observe the holiday that bears his name? How should we think about him and what he stood for?

CWB: What I would lift up as a point of encouragement is that we not engage in this annual ritual of superficial commemoration, as opposed to profound study of Dr. King’s words and work, life and legacy. If we as a nation could really plumb the depths of his moral philosophy, the depths of his theology, his social ethics, if we could read his books, his essays, his sermons, and then really meditate on the meaning of his life, we would be a very different country. I would go so far as to say that many of our faith communities that sometimes struggle for relevance as well as membership would look a lot different because people are compelled to commune and worship and sacrifice and partake of the sacrament with people who are dedicated to a God who delivers, a God who liberates, and a God who is present.

The point is that it’s not an accident that Dr. King is such a compelling historical figure. It had everything to do with the kind of life he led and the sacrifices he made. I would just simply say that if institutions like Harvard Divinity School—a community of scholar-prophets—lead the country in the study of Dr. King's work today, in applying the lessons of his life today, it would greatly enrich all our respective ministries.

—by Paul Massari