The Influence of the Life and Work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Today’s Religious Faiths

Delivered at the 2nd Annual Cobb County SCLC/MLK Interfaith Forum

Days before his assassination, Dr. King said to Harry Belafonte, “Are we integrating into a burning house?” Now this is a remarkable question. This is an arresting question. It is but another way of saying that, as central as racism was to Dr. King’s concern, his concern was larger than that. You can talk about racism all day but that doesn’t mean you’ve covered all there is to talk about. You can completely solve racism but it doesn’t mean complete success. The house can still be burning—burning in flames of poverty and militarism and materialism.

Who wants to integrate into that?

People got Dr. King’s focus on racial justice, but they didn’t like it when he strayed from that single issue. 72 percent of whites and 55 percent of blacks disapproved of his opposition to Vietnam and his efforts to eradicate poverty in America. People just didn’t get it. Wanted him to stay single-issue. Didn’t understand his holism, how he saw systems of oppression intersecting and reinforcing each other.

This is exactly why he says, in his eulogy for the martyred Unitarian Universalist minister the Rev. James Reeb, “So in his death, James Reeb says something to each of us, black and white alike—says that we must substitute courage for caution, says to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered him but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murder.”

That’s it: the system, the way of life, the philosophy.

Oppressions working together, in concert.

Call the focus on this “intersectionality.”

Today’s religious faiths need to pay attention. This is part of his theology of the interrelationship of all life, which Unitarian Universalists affirm in the form of what we like to call our Seventh Principle: “The interdependent web of all existence.”

The reality of ethical interdependence is part of that. We aren’t just talking material interdependence, as in storms brewing in Texas because some butterfly happened to flap its wings in some tropical rain forest 7000 miles away.

The interrelationship of all life is not just material, but moral. Your little act of kindness can go a long way. And a little act of meanness can gather up other acts of meanness and they all get rolled up together and suddenly we’re talking oppressions working together in concert, that kind of juggernaut, and by the grace of God, we are here today to witness to that and to refresh ourselves in the hope that something can be done, that wrongs can be made right, that the universe can bend towards justice, because we saw Dr. King help make that happen, he went before us and he teaches us how we can keep on keeping on, too.

Today’s religious faiths need to witness to that.

And let’s go deeper. Deeper into Dr. King’s intersectional theological/moral vision.

Go back to Birmingham Jail. Get in there with Dr. King. It’s 1963, and he’s talking to his white jailers. “[W]e got down one day,” he says, “to talk about where they lived, and how much they were earning. And when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, ‘Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. You’re just as poor as Negroes.’ And I said, ‘You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because, through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big because you are white. And you’re so poor you can’t send your children to school. You ought to be out here marching with every one of us every time we have a march.”

That’s Dr. King. And today, if he spoke to those white jailers, he’d probably hear worse news about their lives.

Listen to J. D. Vance, author of the amazing book Hillbilly Elegy. “What many don’t understand,” he says, “is how truly desperate [the places of working class/poor whites] are, and we’re not talking about small enclaves or a few towns–we’re talking about multiple states where a significant chunk of the white working class struggles to get by.  Heroin addiction is rampant.  In my medium-sized Ohio county last year, deaths from drug addiction outnumbered deaths from natural causes.  The average kid will live in multiple homes over the course of her life, experience a constant cycle of growing close to a ‘stepdad’ only to see him walk out on the family, know multiple drug users personally, maybe live in a foster home for a bit (or at least in the home of an unofficial foster like an aunt or grandparent), watch friends and family get arrested, and on and on.  And on top of that is the economic struggle, from the factories shuttering their doors to the Main Streets with nothing but cash-for-gold stores and pawn shops.”

No wonder working class whites are the most pessimistic group in America. More pessimistic than Latino immigrants and African-Americans whose prospects in some ways are far worse than that of poor whites. Surveys show this, and analyses of health and mortality data from the CDC and other sources help to explain. Death rates for middle-aged blacks and Hispanics continue to decline, as do death rates for younger and older people of all races and ethnic groups. Only the death rates of poorly-educated, middle aged whites are skyrocketing. Said one of the researchers, “Only H.I.V./AIDS in contemporary times has done anything like this.”

But despite this—nevertheless—we still see members of the white working class refusing offers that sound very much like Dr. King’s, back there in the Birmingham Jail: to unite the forces of all the poor and downtrodden of all kinds, and to fight the real power that shuts the door on their hopes. They refuse that. They support the oppressor instead. “That’s a fact, “Dr. King says. “That the poor white has been put into this position, where through blindness and prejudice, he is forced to support his oppressors. And the only thing he has going for him is the false feeling that he’s superior because his skin is white — and can’t hardly eat and make his ends meet week in and week out.”

Dr. King can say this because he knows his history. He knows that, back in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, plantation owners in America realized they had a big problem on their hands. Before the slave trade, they’d brought over poor whites to do the work. By the time of the slave trade, poor whites outnumbered the rich landowners; and they also started to work with slaves, socialize with them, marry them, even rebel with them—Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 being a prime example. Absolutely not tolerable for the rich! The rich, who also happened to write the laws of the land. And so law after law was passed dictating that poor whites were to be treated with much greater dignity than slaves. Poor whites were also supposed to enforce these laws—to be the active agents of oppression on the ground.

A couple generations of this, and racism became the American Way.

This is not fake news. It might not be in our school textbooks, and shame on our school textbooks!

But don’t forget the classism that was the instigator of the racism. What is classism? It is despising folks who have the “wrong” kind of occupation, education, income, eating habits, accents, enjoyments, and the other things that mark your position on the social totem pole. But not just this—classism is also about using these despised folks to serve the interests of the powerful.

Poor whites: despised but useful.

That is exactly why so much effort has been put into making them afraid.

How did plantation owners convince millions of poor whites to fight the Civil War and defend a slave system that did not benefit them? They pulled the strings of religion and politics so that the frightful image of freed angry Black men ravaging the South would dominate the public imagination and be impossible to ignore. As Georgia Commissioner Henry Benning proclaimed to the Virginia Legislature on Feb. 18, 1861: “War will break out everywhere like hidden fire from the earth. We will be overpowered and our men will be compelled to wander like vagabonds all over the earth, and as for our women, the horrors of their state we cannot contemplate in imagination.”

Fast-forward almost 120 years, and it’s Ronald Reagan trying to convince millions of poor whites to vote for him despite his “Reaganomics,” which proposed to slash federal aid programs so that the rich could receive massive tax cuts and become richer. How did he do that? He repeatedly trotted out the now infamous “Welfare Queen” story. It was devastatingly effective. In 1980 he became president. And, as writer Jonna Ivin puts it, “After a two-year recession, the economy rebounded and continued to grow. Yet while the Reagan administration congratulated themselves on the economic expansion, poor people were still struggling. But Reagan had given poor whites someone to blame for their suffering: the Welfare Queen. He never said she was Black. He didn’t have to.”

And now fast-forward to today. Now, what we’re seeing is a particularly perverse twist to the hundreds of years of the racist + classist American Way, and how the white underclass is both despised and used. The Atlantic writer Conor Friedersdorf brings us into it: “Imagine,” he says, “that you’re a white man from a working-class family who dropped out of college because you couldn’t swing the tuition. You worked construction, but that dried up—you’re presently unemployed, with child-support payments piling up, a sister addicted to pain pills, and a brother who is in jail again for felony drunk driving. You drive a beat up car with a broken turn signal that you can’t afford to fix. You get pulled over regularly, and you’re often harassed by the cops, who hate your tattoos. Would you identify with a [politically Democratic] coalition that alighted on white privilege as the center of its cultural outlook and that mostly disseminated that worldview through people with more educational, social, and financial capital than you’ll ever have?

“Of course you wouldn’t. To do so would seem at odds with all the struggling white people in your familial and social circles. It would seem to imply that failing despite having all the advantages in the world makes you a special kind of loser. It would seem to focus on race to the exclusion of other hugely important factors. And as far as you can tell, when a white family gets their door kicked down and their dog shot in a drug raid, or when a white high school classmate of yours commits suicide, no one in the world of national media much cares.

“Then you watch the [Democratic National Convention], where Michelle Obama, Cory Booker, Eva Longoria, and numerous other black and brown people who are much more successful than anyone you know take the stage. This needn’t feel threatening in and of itself to cause alienation. All it takes is being told that you’re the privileged one.”

That’s Conor Friedersdorf. White supremacy is a real thing, It’s true. White people have to own it. The DNC does well to own it. But when it does this in a way that’s completely tone deaf to intersectionality—completely tone deaf to classism, the football gets fumbled. The result is rage. The result is poor whites feeling completely unseen and misunderstood by people who act like they know everything but they do not, they are completely oblivious to the classism that has them in its grip.

The result is rage.

Enter Donald Trump. He exploits the rage and enlists it to serve his purposes, which isn’t about helping poor people, let me tell you. It’s about the rich getting richer—that old evil racist + classist story we’ve seen in America for the past 350 years, right up to and including the present moment.

The white poor despised but useful, and used.

We need to understand this as a people committed to love and justice. Does not matter what our chosen religious community is, what our favored symbols of God might be. God is love and justice. No one tradition owns that!

Says the Jewish Talmud, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

The love and justice work ahead feels impossibly complex; but increased understanding and rigorous honesty put us on a better path.

Let me ask you: who do you think is actually supporting Donald Trump? Who do you think, when you can drive through some of the poorest regions in West Virginia or Ohio or Georgia and TRUMP signs are the only ones in sight?

Of course, we think the white working class. That’s what’s driving his campaign. Blame the hillbillies, the crackers, the rednecks.

But now take a look at this fact:

  • Gallup’s Jonathan Rothwell determined that Trump support correlates with higher, not lower, income, both among the population as a whole and among white people. Higher income than folks who supported Hillary.

Popular impressions are just off target.

So who are the main Trump supporters?

  • They are more likely to be found in white enclaves—racially isolated Zip-codes where the amount of diversity is lower than in surrounding areas. This also comes from Gallup’s Jonathan Rothwell;
  • Then there’s UCLA’s Michael Tesler, who found that support for Trump strongly correlates with racial resentment;
  • Finally, political scientist Matthew MacWilliams has discovered that a penchant for authoritarianism predicts Trump support.

In other words, the main force behind the Trump candidacy was and is people who are relatively wealthy, people who don’t know other people of color or immigrants or Muslims, people with racial resentment burning inside, people who feel just fine with rule-by-authoritarianism vs. the messy process of democratic politics.

And then there’s this curious fact. Trump did much better in pre-election polls conducted online, versus in person-to-person landline and cellphone surveys. Writer Thomas Edsall said there’s a “social desirability” dynamic in play here: people knew that, when they admitted to wanting to vote for Trump, they thereby admitted to a lot of other things, which would have made other people look at them and go UGH. GROSS.

I go on at length about this because, in the popular impression of poor whites being the main force behind Trumpism, I see yet another instance of despising them but also using them. They are being used as a smokescreen. Images of rednecks screaming at Trump rallies fill our TV screens, but don’t blame them for anti-political trends we’ve been seeing for the past 30 years which David Brooks writes about so penetratingly in his new York Times article “The Governing Cancer of Our Times.” He writes, “People say that Trump is an unconventional candidate and that he represents a break from politics as usual. That’s not true. Trump is the culmination of the trends we have been seeing for the last 30 years: the desire for outsiders; the bashing style of rhetoric that makes conversation impossible; the decline of coherent political parties; the declining importance of policy; the tendency to fight cultural battles and identity wars through political means.”

The only thing I’d add to this is that this trend is the brainchild of conservative political elites.

Who created American racism anyhow, and wrote the rules?

Who got us into the Civil War to begin with?

Who conjured up the specter of the “Welfare Queen”?

And worst hurt are the poor. Always the poor. Including poor whites despised but used.

This is why Dr. King said what he said in Birmingham Jail, back in 1963, talking to his white jailers. “’You ought to be marching with us. You’re just as poor as Negroes.’” He said, “All you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big because you are white. And you’re so poor you can’t send your children to school. You ought to be out here marching with every one of us every time we have a march.”

Several years later, in 1968, Dr. King created the name for a campaign sponsoring marches like this: the Poor People’s Campaign. But just four or so months later, he was assassinated by James Earl Ray, who could have been one of those jailers Dr. King reached out to, a man who lived on the satisfaction of his skin being white, who, being white and poor, was despised and used—and he murdered one of the best and brightest of us all.

We have to stop fighting each other. It’s like we’re standing in a long line and we see people in front of us cutting in and, though we don’t know the story behind each line cut, it instantly feels unfair, like something is being taken away from us; it seems like it’ll never be our turn; and in our rage we fight. But the real question we must start asking is, Who created the situation that leads to long lines in the first place? Who maintains the conditions of scarcity, and fear? What are the forces of greed that enable corporations and billionaires to succeed while shutting the door in the faces of millions of others?

We have to come together, and know each other. Black and brown and white. Rich and poor.

There is yet another reason why Unitarian Univeralists love Dr. King. It had to do with his theology of the divinity of Jesus. It is a divinity of action. Jesus became divine through moral struggle. “Christ,” Dr. King once said, “was to be only the prototype of one among many brothers.” “We are celebrating the Second Advent,” he said, “every time a man or woman turns from ugliness to beauty and is able to forgive even their enemies.”

Today’s religious faiths need to listen up.

It is time to celebrate the Second Advent.

Jesus shows us the way.

Dr. King shows us the way.

Do justice now.

Love mercy now.

Walk humbly now.

We cannot possibly be obligated to complete the work.

But start. Try.

Bring divinity into the world.

Jesus did that.

Dr. King did that.

We can too.

MLK Interfaith


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