King’s commitment to Christian socialism helped him hold together disparate groups that had no history of working together.
“The King-movement put on global display the ravages of racism and racial caste in the United States.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Gary Dorrien. Dorrien is the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Religion at Columbia University, both in New York.His book is Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel.His book, The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel,was featured last week.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Gary Dorrien: Breaking White Supremacy is about Martin Luther King Jr., his mentors, and the movement politics of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. It shows how King and the movement carried out the transformational work of the black social gospel—a tradition of enduring relevance so great it is almost impossible to exaggerate. The King-movementwas incomparably beautiful, searing, important, and nightmarish. It abounded with magnificent rhetoric and put on global display the ravages of racism and racial caste in the United States.King, his mentors, SCLC, and SNCC had faults and blind spots demanding critical interrogation. But these faults do not, to me, diminish that this story is the greatest one we have in this country. I argue that no tradition in U.S. American religious history has a greater legacy than the black social gospel.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
The book focuses on movement politics, social justice organizing, public religious intellectualism, and movement leaders. King had no activist movement experience when history called in December 1955, but he had the personalities and social gospel ideas of Daddy King, Benjamin Mays, J. Pius Barbour, Mordecai Johnson, and Howard Thurman in his head when the movement whirlwind took him away. If they could combine progressive theology, social justice activism, and black church religion in a way that thwarted white oppression and kept hope alive, so could he. In fact, he was called to do so. King’s brilliance allowed him to soar beyond his mentors, but the movement made him, not the other way around, and it would not have happened had he not been willing to learn from Mays, Barbour, Johnson, Thurman, and Bayard Rustin.
Rustin rushed to Montgomery from New York, befriended King, and introduced him to his fellow Old Left activists Stanley Levison and Ella Baker. After the boycott succeeded, they were determined to build a new organization that kindled many Montgomerys. King rightly figured that the movement needed a church-based organization dedicated to spreading protest wildfire. Rustin, Levison, and Baker fondly remembered how the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) used strikes, boycotts, and marches to make gains for economic justice. They were also chastened by this history, because the Old Left strategy of fusing anti-racism with trade unions and socialism failed in the 1930s. Racism cut deeper than class solidarity, and the very success of the CIO at organizing unions yielded a merger with the American Federation of Labor that dissipated the anti-racist thrust of the CIO.
“King had no activist movement experience when history called.”
The three movement veterans were strategic in basing SCLC on the black church, notwithstanding that Rustin was a socialist Quaker, Levison was a Jewish former Communist, Baker’s experience of the black church made her averse to authoritarian preachers, and the SCLC clerics very much disliked King’s reliance on them. King took in stride that all three had Old Left backgrounds. He bonded with Rustin and Levison, and treated Baker badly, providing a bad example for SCLC leaders. Breaking White Supremacy stresses that King’s commitment to Christian socialism—a social gospel tradition—helped him hold together disparate groups that had no history of working together and little basis for doing so. It also argues that King was a democratic socialist throughout his career, not just in his “later King” speeches and writings.
What do you hope readers will un-learn?
In my early career as a solidarity organizer and pastor I organized ecumenical MLK observances and chafed at the rules governing them. So I remember vividly that 15-year void-period, after he was gone, when King Day celebrations called for a King Holiday. King’s reputation among white Americans climbed ever higher, putting a holiday in reach. People who had spurned or reviled him while he lived now claimed to admire him; many “forgot” having reviled him. The campaign fixed on “I Have a Dream” imagery. To win the iconic status that King deserved, he had to be domesticated, and was.
The memory of King taking the struggle to Chicago, railing against capitalism and the Vietnam War, emphasizing what was true in the Black Power movement, and organizing a Poor People’s Campaign faded into an unthreatening idealism. King became safe and ethereal, registering as a noble moralist. The civil rights movement was reduced to a reform movement for individual opportunity. It became hard to remember why, or even that, King was the most hated person in America during his lifetime.
I am one of many who are seeking to correct how this story is told. King keenly understood why and how deeply he was hated. White America needed to confront its hostility toward black Americans and its sense of racial entitlement, building a culture of atonement for 246 years of chattel slavery and 100 years of racial segregation. No mere political reform movement would make that happen.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
I noted in the forum for The New Abolition that my work operates on two tracks,so here I will just talk about King. I came of age in the climactic years of the civil rights movement. My teachers described America as the world’s greatest nation in every way that mattered and the greatest ever. The movement taught a very different lesson. King became the formative figure for me long before I understood much of anything about politics or religion. Then he was assassinated, and he became a Jesus-figure who died for us, the exemplar of the peacemaking and justice-making way of Jesus. That was the extent of my religious worldview when I squeaked into college to play sports. All these years later, it is still my bedrock.
Michael Harrington was my friend and role model for fifteen years before he died in 1989, and I was a sponge for his stories about King, Rustin, Norman Thomas, and the generation that had just passed. At Heineken time, after the lecture and aftermath, he would open up. He would tease me about religion and I would press for more about King. The King scholarship of the 1970s and early 1980s did not capture the vibrant person that Mike described, nor did it convey the Southern black Baptist sources of King’s genius. It meant the world to me, in the mid-1980s, when King scholarship suddenly got really good. There was a gusher of it and we benefited when insiders began to tell scholars about the King they knew. I had a similar perspective on Rustin via his many years of socialist and peace activism, but at the time Rustin had gone over to the neoconservatives and was bashing us for betraying anti-communism. Breaking White Supremacy covers some of that ground, although I tried to keep it to a minimum.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
In his last years, King fixed on three reform objectives and a movement ambition. The reform objectives were to terminate racial discrimination in housing, establish a minimum guaranteed income, and end America’s global militarism. Sometimes he put it in ethical terms, as in his magnificent Riverside Address, calling America to repudiate its “giant triplet of racism, materialism, and militarism.” Meanwhile he built a multi-racial poor people’s movement for social justice, beginning with a march of the poor to Washington DC.
Fifty years later, these reform objectives and the dream of a mighty movement of the poor are still highly relevant. One does not have to tweak them very much to line out an agenda for today. The New Poor People’s Campaign led by William Barber and Liz Theoharis has done so luminously.
This campaign has a larger imperative that transcends politics and is harder to talk about. White America needs to confront its hostility toward black Americans and its sense of racial entitlement, building a culture of atonement. In the Riverside Address, King called it “a true revolution of values”—a moral transformation of American society. America’s warped value system, he said, defeated all attempts to overcome the giant triplet. America needed to stop tolerating extreme inequality in the United States, stop pillaging nations in the Third World, and stop presuming its right to bully and invade weaker nations.
“King’s reform objectives were to terminate racial discrimination in housing, establish a minimum guaranteed income, and end America’s global militarism.”
Sometimes he stressed how hard it would be to break white supremacy. In 1966, after he got pelted with rocks in Chicago, King cautioned an SCLC gathering: “The white man literally sought to annihilate the Indian. If you look through the history of the world this very seldom happened.” Until 1967 King refused to say that a backlash was occurring, because backlash talk suggested that racism was increasing and he should do something different. Then he acquiesced to the word, but stressed that what mattered was the cause: Racial hostility was always there and had never been otherwise. The movement brought this deep hostility to the surface, now called a backlash.
King exemplifies how to cope with this reality while keeping hope alive. In his last years he was more radical than anyone around him. The Poor People’s Campaign topped his previous forays into risky, controversial, chaotic protest. Now he outflanked even James Bevel, his usual barometer of too-far extremism. King did not claim to have the political angles figured. Perhaps his lieutenants were right that squatting in the nation’s capital would hurt his reform proposals. The only thing he knew for sure was with whom he needed to be—the poorest of the poor and afflicted.
Roberto Sirventis Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the forthcoming book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
Please join the conversation on Black Agenda Report's Facebook page at http://facebook.com/blackagendareport
Or, you can comment by emailing us at [email protected]