I am sat in Ebenezer Baptist church on Auburn Avenue a short walk from downtown Atlanta. The dark oak pews and the clumsy oversized ecclesiastical thrones speak of the forgotten wealth of this once middle class African American neighbourhood.
They are playing a loop of organ music of hymns I don’t know. Yet God is speaking to me. I can’t shake from my mind the black and white images of women and children marching over a bridge to peacefully campaign for the right to vote. Waiting for them was a barricade of armed men on horses with dogs straining on their leashes. Then came the tear gas, the water canons, then came the baton charge, then came the kicks and punches.
There’s a little girl frightened to march but her school teacher offers her comfort and reassurance. I can see what Malcolm Gladwell the commentator means when he talks about the strong ties that are necessary to bring significant social change as its going to take some serious commitment to each other to march into the face of terror together and stand by each other as the beatings rain down on you.
Yet Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, The Freedom Riders were not uneducated naive individuals. They were media literate, they knew about the power of image, the art of oratory, the stickiness of a sound bite. They engineered the provocative image, staged the showdown, appealed to conscience and constitution. There was great bravery and great thinking behind the civil rights movement its time for Christians to develop both of these attributes again.
Free (Grace) Radicals
I had always thought of Luther King as a revolutionary, a radical. but he was fighting a battle on two fronts. He was facing down the evils of racism but pleading for grace, he refused to fight evil with evil. Malcolm X and the black panthers called for militant action, violent struggle was the only way to get real change. Despite bombings, lynchings, and murders King dared to call for peaceful process. He was ridiculed not just by whites but African Americans too. How do you keep your nerve and focus under those circumstances? How do you keep on being gracious when the people you are sacrificing for don’t appreciate you?
I caught a glimpse of Christ in the life of Martin Luther King. I struggle with it because he was a philanderer and adulterer, despite having a beautiful wife and gorgeous children who faced death threats and danger because of his work, King was infamously unfaithful, apparently even the night before he was murdered, to those who were most faithful to him. There is no excusing this. None of us can judge him because there but for the grace of God go any of us. But God has the knack of redemption, he has a history of using broken and flawed people to do his work. From Samson to David, from Mary Magdalene to Peter, God puts treasure into jars of clay.
Our world is beautiful and broken. It’s ridiculously warm in Georgia for the beginning of January. The sun is shining on this run down part of Atlanta. Once you leave the reconstructed facades of the King family home and his church; which is only a stone’s throw from it. This area is still a black neighbourhood, though it lacks the middle classes that wore their suits and ties and bonnets and dresses as they took their children for a sunday afternoon walk. I didn’t see white children and black holding hands and playing together, I see more social degradation and continued racism. There’s still a long way to go until King’s Dream comes true.
(I wrote this piece last week but published it on Martin Luther King Day 2012)
What has Martin Luther King taught you?