The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial dedication ceremony was described as a mix of worship service and partisan political rally, but there’s scant mention of race, racism or God at the site. What’s going on?
Back then, a half century ago, the wholesale racial integration required by the 1964 Civil Rights Act was just beginning to chip away at discrimination in education, jobs and public facilities. Black voters had only obtained legal protections two years earlier, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act was about to become law.
African-Americans were only beginning to move into neighborhoods, colleges and careers once reserved for whites only.
I’m too young to remember those days. But hearing my parents talk about the late 1960s, it sounds in some ways like another world. Numerous African-Americans now hold positions of power, from mayor to governor to corporate chief executive – and, yes, once upon a time, president. The U.S. is a very different place than it was in 1968.
Or is it? As a scholar of minority politics, I know that while some things have improved markedly for black Americans in the past 50 years, today we are still fighting many of the same battles as Dr. King did in his day.
A year before his death, Dr. King and others began organizing a Poor People’s Campaign to “dramatize the plight of America’s poor of all races and make very clear that they are sick and tired of waiting for a better life.”
Ralph Abernathy, an African-American minister, led the way in his fallen friend’s place.
“We come with an appeal to open the doors of America to the almost 50 million Americans who have not been given a fair share of America’s wealth and opportunity,” Abernathy said, “and we will stay until we get it.”
This is now
So, how far have black people progressed since 1968? Have we gotten our fair share yet? Those questions have been on my mind a lot this month.
Financial security, too, still differs dramatically by race. Black households earn $57.30 for every $100 in income earned by white families. And for every $100 in white family wealth, black families hold just $5.04.
Another troubling aspect about black social progress – or should I say the lack thereof – is how many black families are headed by single women. In the 1960s, unmarried women were the main breadwinners for 20 percent of households. In recent years, the percentage has risen as high as 72 percent.
Black Americans today are also more dependent on government aid than they were in 1968. Currently, almost 40 percent of African-Americans are poor enough to qualify for welfare, housing assistance and other government programs that offer modest support to families living under the poverty line.
Depending on who you ask, then, black people aren’t much better off than in 1968 because either there’s not enough government help or there’s way too much.
What would MLK do?
I don’t have to wonder what Dr. King would recommend. He believed in institutional racism.
In 1968, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council sought to tackle inequality with the Economic Bill of Rights. This was not a legislative proposal, per se, but a moral vision of a just America where all citizens had educational opportunities, a home, “access to land,” “a meaningful job at a living wage” and “a secure and adequate income.”
To achieve that, King wrote, the U.S. government should create an initiative to “abolish unemployment,” by developing incentives to increase the number of jobs for black Americans. He also recommended “another program to supplement the income of those whose earnings are below the poverty level.”
Those ideas were revolutionary in 1968. Today, they seem prescient. King’s notion that all citizens need a living wage portends the universal basic income concept now gaining traction worldwide.
King’s rhetoric and ideology are also obvious influences on Sen. Bernie Sanders, who in the 2016 presidential primaries advocated equality for all people, economic incentives for working families, improved schools, greater access to higher education and for anti-poverty initiatives.
Progress has been made. Just not as much as many of us would like. To put it in Dr. King’s words, “Lord, we ain’t what we oughta be. We ain’t what we want to be. We ain’t what we gonna be. But, thank God, we ain’t what we was.”
For years, Martin Luther King Jr. and poet Langston Hughes maintained a friendship, exchanging letters and favors and even traveling to Nigeria together in 1960.
In 1956, King recited Hughes’ poem “Mother to Son” from the pulpit to honor his wife Coretta, who was celebrating her first Mother’s Day. That same year, Hughes wrote a poem about Dr. King and the bus boycott titled “Brotherly Love.” At the time, Hughes was much more famous than King, who was honored to have become a subject for the poet.
But during the most turbulent years of the civil rights movement, Dr. King never publicly uttered the poet’s name. Nor did the reverend overtly invoke the poet’s words.
You would think that King would be eager to do so; Hughes was one of the Harlem Renaissance’s leading poets, a master with words whose verses inspired millions of readers across the globe.
However, Hughes was also suspected of being a communist sympathizer. In March of 1953, he was even called to testify before Joseph McCarthy during the Red Scare.
Meanwhile, King’s opponents were starting to make similar charges of communism against him and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, accusing the group of being a communist front. The red-baiting ended up serving as some of the most effective attacks against King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
It forced King to distance his organization from men with similar reputations – Bayard Rustin, Jack O’Dell and even his closest adviser, Stanley Levison.
It also meant he needed to sever any overt ties to Hughes.
But my research has found traces of Hughes’ poetry in King’s speeches and sermons. While King might not have been able to invoke Hughes’ name, he was nonetheless able to ensure that Hughes’ words would be broadcast to millions of Americans.
Beating back the red-baiters
In the 1930s, Hughes earned a subversive reputation by writing several radical poems. In them, he criticized capitalism, called for worker’s to rise up in revolution and claimed racism was virtually absent in communist countries such as the U.S.S.R.
Red-baiting also fractured black political and social organizations. For example, Bayard Rustin was forced to resign from the SCLC after African-American Congressman Adam Clayton Powell threatened to expose Rustin’s homosexuality and his past association with the Communist Party USA.
As the leading figure in the civil rights movement, King had to toe a delicate line. Because he needed to retain popular support – as well as be able to work with the Kennedy and Johnson administrations – there could be no question about where he stood on the issue of communism.
So King needed to be shrewd about invoking Hughes’ poetry. Nonetheless, I’ve identified traces of no fewer than seven of Langston Hughes’ poems in King’s speeches and sermons.
In 1959, the play “A Raisin in the Sun” premiered to rave reviews and huge audiences. Its title was inspired by Hughes’ poem “Harlem.”
“What happens to a dream deferred?” Hughes writes. “Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? … Or does it explode?”
Just three weeks after the premiere of “A Raisin in the Sun,” King delivered one of his most personal sermons, giving it a title – “Shattered Dreams” – that echoed Hughes’ imagery.
“Is there any one of us,” King booms in the sermon, “who has not faced the agony of blasted hopes and shattered dreams?” He’d more directly evoke Hughes in a later speech, in which he would say, “I am personally the victim of deferred dreams.”
Hughes’ words would also become a rallying cry during the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
During the grind of the year-long boycott, King spurred activists on by pulling from “Mother to Son.”
“Life for none of us has been a crystal stair,” King proclaimed at the Holt Street Baptist Church, “but we must keep moving.” (“Well, son, I’ll tell you / Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair,” Hughes wrote. “But all the time / I’se been a-climbin’ on.”)
Did Hughes inspire the dream?
King’s best-known speech is “I Have a Dream,” which he delivered during the 1963 March on Washington.
Nine months before the famous march, King gave the earliest known delivery of the “I Have a Dream” speech in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. (We can also now finally hear this connection after the reel-to-reel tape of King’s First Dream was recently discovered.)
But the roots of “I Have a Dream” go back even further. On Aug. 11, 1956, King delivered a speech titled “The Birth of a New Age.” Many King scholars consider this address – which talked about King’s vision for a new world – the thematic precursor to his “I Have a Dream” speech.
In this speech, I recognized what others had missed: King had subtly ended his speech by rewriting Langston Hughes’ “I Dream a World.”
A world I dream where black or white,
Whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth
And every man is free.
It is impossible not to notice the parallels in what would become “I Have a Dream”: I have a dream that one day … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.
King spoke truth to power, and part of that strategy involved riffing or sampling Hughes’ words. By channeling Hughes’ voice, he was able to elevate the subversive words of a poet that the powerful thought they had silenced.
During the election, messages of hate, fear and intolerance were propagated across different media and into communities. And the messages continue. While parents view and listen to these ever-present messages, alongside them are their children, hearing these same messages through a lens ill-equipped to discern the implications of negative stereotypes and incorrect portrayals.
Throughout the election, children heard such things as Mexican immigrants are “rapists” and are “bringing drugs…bringing crime” and that African-Americans are “thugs” and “living in hell.”
These messages, no matter their voice, were designed and intended to target adults. As pediatricians, we’re now seeing, however, that children were listening and they are responding in ways we might not have anticipated.
As parents, caretakers and citizens, we have the power to turn this tide. And as we approach the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.‘s birthday, now is the time to explore ways to teach children to communicate with love and respect.
Stop the hate and offer love
One response to the messages children hear is to incite more hate. In April 2016, a now well-cited survey of 2,000 teachers conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance Program found that more than half of respondents reported seeing an increase in uncivil discourse in their schools. This, along with other findings from the survey, was used to coin “The Trump Effect,” a term denoting the hateful acts performed by children and adults alike.
The change we’ve seen in children’s behavior may be happening for the same reason they react to the violence they see in media. Prior research has shown that children exposed to media violence have higher levels of violent behaviors, hostility and that they are more desensitized to violence, including a lower likelihood of intervening in an ongoing fight and less sympathy for the victims of violence. Media violence itself can instill fear in the young viewers that may be persistent for years.
Hate and intolerance touted in the media is no different. As is their nature developmentally, children adopt what they hear as truth, adapting it to their lives, and in many cases across the nation, acting upon it.
Another response can be love. Recently, a Facebook group was started by a Seattle-based mom, encouraging children to write letters to the president-elect explaining the importance of being kind. To date, 10,000 children have joined, from across the country, writing how kindness should guide the future administration. To quote one sixth grade child, “Please show kindness to people, no matter their race, religion, beliefs, or most importantly, who they are as a person.”
This dichotomy of responses begs the questions: Why are children uniquely positioned to respond to messages of hate strongly, and how do parents guide their children to respond with love over hate?
Developmental stages: A lens for media messages
Children’s actions may depend heavily on their developmental stage. Older teenagers are generally better able to discern the meaning and implications of the strong emotions conveyed in the media, but younger children often are unable to decode them.
Emotions like hate, fear and intolerance are complex. Younger children are not equipped to understand the context and ramifications associated with these complex emotions, especially when seen in an abstract form, such as media. In addition, we know that young children are not developmentally able to discern paralanguage, the complex, emotional undertones of speech. Without these underpinnings, it’s nearly impossible to understand when messages are rooted in sarcasm or are based on fallacious assumptions.
Parents fear loss of control
Older children may be able to think more critically about what they hear, but may have a hard time deciding what they should believe. Children who identify as a part of a minority group based on their race or ethnicity, nativity status, sexual orientation or ability status may also internalize the messages, which can lead to increased distress. This distress may be associated with concerning behaviors such as withdrawal, anger, anxiety and conduct problems.
In 2015, over 65 percent of Americans had a smartphone and over 95 percent of homes had a television. In 2016 The American Academy of Pediatrics, an organization of over 66,000 pediatricians, revised its policy statement to encourage the use of these types of media for children as young as 18 months in a structured way to facilitate learning.
However, many families feel conflicted on how to select for beneficial content, while filtering out the harmful content, such as stories that highlight hate and intolerance. A study published in the November issue of Annals of Family Medicine found caregivers felt they had less and less control over the content their children viewed in today’s age of rapidly evolving technologies.
This effect was seen increasingly in families with lower socioeconomic status and lower income. These caregivers wanted their children to be exposed to the advantageous aspects of technology, but worried about how to set limits and make the right choices for their children.
As parents, we know it is hard to totally shield our children from the media, so how do we silence the noise of hate and usher our children toward actions of love and respect?
Our path forward
The strongest change you can make is in your own home.
Here are four ways you can scaffold the messages our children hear, providing them with context and skills beyond their developmental stages to filter and respond to the hate and intolerance seen in the media.
Use your resources: There are many web-based tools that parents can turn to, including KidsHealth.org’s “Teaching Your Child Tolerance” and Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Teaching Tolerance” toolkit. Both of these sites include developmentally appropriate stories and games to discuss racial and cultural differences with your child.
Talk to your child about responding with kindness: Even offhand statements can be felt as hateful to others. Creating a culture of kindness in your home can have ripple effects. Remember, tolerance does not mean tolerating hateful behavior. It means everyone deserves to be respected and should respect others. For example, if your child hears someone saying something intolerant, encourage them to speak up against it. However, instead of saying, “I think people who use racist and sexist language are stupid,” encourage them to demonstrate kindness: “I think it’s cool when we treat everyone with respect.”
Set a strong example and explain it to your child: While children pick up on everything we do, it’s even better to tell them what you’re doing. Become active in your community, volunteer locally, nationally or globally. Take your child along and get them involved. Even easier, show them how you respond to intolerant acts and explain to them why.
Teach your children to feel good about themselves and love their own culture: We know that children who struggle with self-esteem can respond by bullying others. Conversely, kids with higher self-esteem may bolster others around them. Emphasize your child’s own strengths and encourage them to explore their interests. Teach them about their own cultural background and instill a sense of cultural pride in your family. Being aware of the language we use and being intentional about our attitudes are skills child carry with them outside their home.
And remember, children are listening. While we may not be able to change the messages in the media, we can change how our children respond to them, and that change starts with you.
“If we’re going to take Martin Luther King Jr. seriously in theological education as someone worthy of being studied, we can’t just do a service, celebration or lecture on his anniversary,” said Dr. Cheryl J. Sanders, senior pastor of the Third Street Church of God in Washington, D.C. and this year’s guest speaker at the 2014 MLK Jr. Lecture Series at Fuller Seminary.
Instead, Sanders, who is also a professor of Christian Ethics at Howard University School of Divinity, told the audience that she would be speaking on the leadership legacy of the historic figure.
“I’d like to suggest particular roles King played that we can use as a guide to our pedagogy in the academy as we are preparing people for leadership and professional formation for ministry,” she said, noting that these roles can then be adopted by people who cherish King’s legacy, ministry, and are willing to take up his “prophetic mantle.”
The seven leadership roles that King possessed and exemplified, and “are worthy of emulation by religious leaders of our time,” are that of orator; organizer; opportunist; optimist; operative; organic intellectual; and oracle, Sanders explained. She emphasized that embedded in each role are corresponding gifts of virtue such as “hunger and thirst for righteousness, purity of heart, right motivation, and equanimity under pressure.”
Firstly, the role of orator is to communicate ideas to motivate diverse audiences, Sanders said.
“It’s not the communication, it’s the motivation,” she said. King would often use proverbial expressions, scriptures, and quotes as part of his oratory presentation to add imagery and expressiveness to his speech. Sanders explained that people today can study him as an orator and watch his effectiveness in communicating motivation even in this age of social media.
King also played the role of an organizer to develop and sustain a following to achieve goals and ends. Sanders noted that King grew up in the African American church as a preacher’s son. Because he belonged to middle-class society and was very bright, he was able to attend college at the age of 16. There, King, was involved in fraternities and societies. As a result, Sanders said, by the time King was through seminary and hitting the public sphere, he understood how organizations, clubs, and networks operate. He was also able to speak to both white America and the Black poor. This allowed him to be successful as an organizer, and to speak with “unflinching honesty and undeniable authenticity.”
Opportunity is also an important part of leadership, Sanders said. Opportunists can harness media and technology to seize the moment. Pointing to an image of King’s cover photo in Time Magazine, Sanders explained that King would often present himself as a Black leader familiar with European intellectual trends.
“Opportunist isn’t a bad word,” Sanders said. “It’s recognizing that having a PhD from Boston University meant King is conversant in broader audiences than just the traditional Black church audience.”
King acquired respectability in a broader audience, and took advantage of opportunities to be in the media.
King was also an optimist, able to inspire hope in resistance to dread and despair. Sanders noted optimism doesn’t just mean dreaming and hoping. Not every protest King led was successful, she said, which made it all the more important for him to be an optimist “so in the face of failure he can speak a word of hope that is meaningful.”
Sanders also explained that optimism means having the ability to see what change looks like.
“Protest of injustice is a good and necessary thing, but you need to have an alternative in mind,” she said. “You can’t just tear stuff down. You need to have an inkling of what is possible.”
Leaders can also learn to be an operative – a person who achieves objectives of a larger interest. Pointing to a photo of King standing behind President Lyndon B. Johnson as he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Sanders noted that the photo communicated “politics of compromise.”
“As an operative, you know when to hold ’em, and you know when to fold ’em,” she said. The photo showed King being a successful operative, because he was able to diminish his role, and allow the person with power to achieve what was the best interest of his people.
King also played the role of organic intellectual, able to fuel activism with academic agility.
“Martin Luther King Jr. was the most successful organic intellectual in American history,” Sanders said. “Never before has a figure outside of elected public office linked the life of the mind with social change with such moral persuasion and political effectiveness.”
Sanders explained that King became an organic intellectual by being shaped through his prophetic Black church tradition, the liberal Christianity he encountered in his scholarly training, prophetic Ghandian method of non-violence, and the prophetic American civil religion that fuses secular and sacred history and combines Christian themes of deliverance and salvation with political ideals of democracy. King exemplified “the best of the life of the mind involved in public affairs.”
In addition, King had the ability to talk to people who were not his intellectual peers – to make himself available to even young children.
“As intellectuals, we can’t afford to shelter ourselves in our ivory towers,” Sanders said. “And we have to be not just available, but willing. The American way is to relate up and not relate down, because people on the up will help you to advance.” However, Sanders reminded the audience of the scripture passage in Matthew, when Jesus told the disciples to let the children come to him.
Lastly, Dr. King was an oracle. Sanders pointed to his last sermon, in which he accurately predicted his death, as evidence of King’s ability to discern vision and voice in the realm of the Spirit.
“An orator crafts a speech or sermon,” Sanders said. “An oracle speaks what is heard in the ear or the heart. When King spoke the night before his assassination, he spoke of things not from a book. He was hearing from another realm.”
Sanders concluded by echoing that the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. is not just a holiday or an occasion, but to mind the lessons that will serve us going forward.
“The role of the public pastorate can be elevated and enhanced by individuals who have been schooled in the various leadership roles exemplified by King and we can teach and equip our theological students to pursue leadership development and professional formation beyond the traditional roles of pastor, priest, and preacher to equip them to care more effectively for the soul of a nation,” she said.
2013 was brimming with special-year anniversary commemorations. We celebrated events and people that have immeasurably shaped and defined our country and society. Perhaps most notably, the 50-year anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream Speech’ dominated national consciousness by calling to our collective memory an electrifying moment of unity and promise. It’s certainly unquestionable that the Dream speech is worthy of remembrance and celebration. But even before the crowds jammed the streets of downtown D.C. last August, some commentators and activists were suggesting that maybe we focus too much on this one aspect of the civil rights movement, throwing the weight of the entire struggle and all of Dr. King’s contributions onto one oratorical delivery. It’s a valid point. We need to expand our view and explore other critical aspects of the struggle and the man. There was more than D.C.. Montgomery, Atlanta, Albany, Greensboro, and Selma each played prominent roles in the movement’s progression toward equality. And then there’s Birmingham.
Before King ever stepped to the podium in D.C., he was holed up in a dirty jail cell in Birmingham, dubbed “Bombingham” and home to “Dynamite Hill.” In a newly-released book, “Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Epic Challenge to the Church,” Ed Gilbreath revisits this pivotal period and location of the movement, and invites us to reflect with him on the titanic clash between recalcitrant segregationists, resolute civil rights activists, and a halting presidential administration that produced a seismic shift in the public’s thinking and lay the groundwork for future victories. We need this book: black America, particularly the black church; politicians and pundits; activists; and white Christians. All of us need to rediscover King as the “provocative prophet of social justice” Gilbreath reveals him to be. The church universal desperately needs to recover the prophetic tradition in which King operated. Gilbreath’s book guides us on a much-needed path to renewed commitment and passion for racial justice and reconciliation provoked by a response to the prophetic call of King, Birmingham, and the God who brought them together to change a nation.
“Birmingham Revolution,” while it does cover well-worn civil rights territory, doesn’t provide a sweeping tour of King’s life, the Civil Rights Movement, or the Letter From a Birmingham Jail. Rather, Gilbreath’s treatment is focused on the nexus of King’s involvement In the Birmingham campaign portion of the movement and the Letter’s role in articulating King’s feelings and position on the struggle and mission of the campaign and the movement. The scope and boundaries of the book show great discipline and restraint. “Birmingham Revolution” spares us the massive density of other civil-rights-chronicling books like Diane McWhorter’s 701-page Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution, or the legendary heft of Taylor Branch’s America in the King Years three-part series, the middle volume of which tops out at 796 pages. Gilbreath’s book is a sleek 207 pages, including the index, acknowledgments, and notes. His tight focus gives the reader a mental and emotional target that facilitates critical thought and reflection.
The first couple of chapters are dense with names, dates, places, and other historical facts. Here, Gilbreath is in historian mode. For example, in chapter one, Birmingham Begins, he: gives a brief history of Birmingham’s founding; provides a biographical sketch of Eugene “Bull” Connor, the reigning police commissioner; references the murder of Emmett Till; describes the crucial role black churches and pastors played by providing spiritual leadership and mobilizing black citizens for action; and gives a colorful personal profile of Fred Shuttlesworth, membership chairman of the Birmingham chapter of the NAACP, and King’s right-hand man in Birmingham. The blunt force of all the history-book type data is softened by Gilbreath’s engaging writing style. Delightfully rich in fiction-esque details, the book sometimes reads like a fictionalized account of actual events. Take this excerpt of an imagined, but plausible, dialogue between King and the eight white clergy whose criticism prompted the Letter From a Birmingham Jail, constructed from snippets of both the clergy’s published statement and King’s Letter:
Birmingham Eight: Dr. King, we appreciate what you were able to accomplish in Montgomery when you lived there, but this is Birmingham. Why are you bringing a group of outsiders to our city? We believe our local white and Negro leadership should work together to solve our city’s problems.
King: Well, as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, I received an invitation from our Alabama affiliate. But even more important, I came to Birmingham because injustice is here.
It seems that one of Gilbreath’s hopes for “Birmingham Revolution” is for people to see King in a three-dimensional way, walking away from the book with an integrated view of him that resists romantic notions and hero worship. Chapter two identifies 14 “key themes and experiences that defined King’s childhood, education, and early life”, which help us make valuable connections between who King really was and how that prepared him to step into his place in history. Equally facilitative of that goal is chapter seven, a gripping discussion of the anger King felt, and how he was able to transform that anger into a redemptive force that ignited within him a holy fire that seared the shortsighted critique of him and the movement, and also gave light and clarity to the movement’s followers for the future—this chapter alone really is worth the price of the book.
In the final analysis, the overarching brilliance and value of this book is its subtlety and the way Gilbreath has of suggesting, not preaching. It seems he doesn’t want to preach us happy in celebration of King and the victory of the Birmingham campaign, but to show us how we’re shortchanging ourselves by persisting in a narrow, diluted view of King. He wants to nudge us-firmly-in the direction of a more robust, courageous, and redemptive course of action on the road to racial justice and reconciliation; and to begin to explore the themes we can extrapolate from the text. His “concluding ideas” in the last chapter caused me to deeply consider the state of black leadership today, whether we will ever see another like King, and whether we need to. He leaves us exactly where he himself seems most comfortable: with questions, concepts, and ideas to ponder.
Stay tuned for part two of the “Birmingham Revolution” series which will be published this weekend. I will share my conversation with the author Ed Gilbreath wherein we discussed power and privilege, redemptive anger, and spiritual risk-taking, among other things.
 Edward Gilbreath, Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Epic Challenge to the Church, (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2013), 93