A day before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famed Mountain Top speech at Mason Temple in Memphis, TN.
Although King was known as a skilled orator who often wrote his speeches with vivid language and imagery, he outdid even himself on this day. He used one litany of five simple words that would later become iconic: “I’m glad I didn’t sneeze.”
King was referring to a prior life-threatening event that he experienced in 1958, when a deranged woman stabbed him so close to his heart’s aorta that his doctors said if he sneezed, he would have faced certain death.
King took off with this litany saying that he was glad he did not sneeze or he would have missed seeing the victories that the Civil Rights Movement won against racial segregation in Selma or Montgomery. He would have missed witnessing Brown vs. Board of Education ruling to dismantle school segregation.
Today, King is nationally recognized by millions of Americans as a prolific, unifying force who became the face of the Civil Rights Movement, but King started first from Christian roots. Before he was an acclaimed Civil Rights activist, he was first a theologian and pastor.
Although beloved today, King was a controversial figure of his time. Not only did he routinely receive criticism from Americans who supported legalized segregation, but also from peers within his own race and faith. Some African-American preachers felt that King’s vision was too radical and his tactics too aggressive.But he pushed on, and remained true to his convictions, even when his unwavering views on non-violence and expanding focus on economic justice became increasingly unpopular.
In a 1967 speech, he declared, “On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscious asks the question is it right? And there comes a time when a man must take the position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because it is right.”
King passed away 50 years ago, but his teachings and ideals still live on. Just as he is glad that he did not sneeze, I am glad that he did not stay silent. If he would have stayed silent, we would not have had such a galvanizing figure who could bring people from all races, classes, creeds, and backgrounds together toward the pursuit of justice.
What can contemporary faith leaders learn from King’s legacy? What duties does the church – or any religious body – have to speak out against social injustice? Well for one, religious leaders can learn that silence, although an easier road than social involvement, does not move the needle on human progress. In fact, it puts a rubber stamp of approval on the status quo.
Historically, churches have helped the poor, downtrodden, and sick. They have created food banks to feed the hungry, hospitals for the sick, or shelters to house the poor. These works have long been accepted forms of faith-based charity. But in the 21st century, as social issues grow more complex, churches that view their social role only in terms of food, clothing, and shelter – or do not see themselves involved in society at all – would miss an important opportunity to leverage their position as a beacon of light in their communities to improve the lives of their congregants and communities.
Wherever injustice exists, faith leaders have an opportunity to take a stand. Like King, ministers can do just as much, if not more, if they move beyond the pulpit and hit the pavement to bring about social change. If they move beyond lip service towards life service.
Activism in Education
As this week, January 21-27, is School Choice Week, let’s consider the issue of education – which in urban areas across the U.S., has remained a core issue in the frontier for civil rights.
Much like in King’s era, neighborhoods that are largely populated by African Americans and other racial minorities, have a larger concentration of failing schools. Failing schools means the students attending those schools will be unprepared for life and the workforce. They will lack the basic skills they need to become financially and professionally successful. Just as important as feeding the hungry, or clothing the poor, is giving children access to an education from which they can find gainful employment and financial success.
In the U.S. economy, where most jobs require a minimum of a high school diploma but increasingly a college degree, quality educational opportunities have become the pathway for success for our country’s youth. The debate over school choice has become political. But beyond the politics, churches can survey their congregation and community to determine which forms of schooling fit the needs of their communities.
Whether they support forms of school choice like laws that allow for the opening of new, responsible charter schools, or the provision of school vouchers to help parents pay to send their children to private schools, or busing programs, or whether they are staunch advocates of only traditional public schools, churches can still play a role in making the educational experience of every child better.
Center of Hope Men’s ministry greets the students at Inglewood High School with a smile every Monday morning. They help improve student’s experience in the public-school system as it is now.
West Angeles Church sponsors a school fair that helps connect parents with the school outreach staff of public, private, and charter schools to help parents decide which options are best for their kids. They also host an annual backpack drive to get children ready to return to school each Fall.
In whatever way, get involved in improving the realities that youth face and giving them the hope for a bright future.
In their own way, as God leads them, churches as a collective, and church members individually, can promote social causes that improve the quality of life for youth and families in their neighborhoods.