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Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Long Social Gospel Movement

  • Vaneesa Cook
Abstract

Historians have posited several theories in an attempt to explain what many regard as Martin Luther King, Jr.'s radical departure, in the late 1960's, from his earlier, liberal framing of civil rights reform. Rather than view his increasingly critical statements against the Vietnam War and the liberal establishment as evidence of a fundamental change in his thinking, a number of scholars have braided the continuity of King's thought within frameworks of democratic socialism and the long civil rights movement, respectively. King's lifelong struggle for racial justice in America, they argue, was rife with broader and more radical implications than that of a national campaign for political inclusion. His message was global, and it was revolutionary. However, when depicting him exclusively in the context of black radicals during “the long civil rights movement,“ or the labor movement, these scholars have a tendency to downplay the most fundamental component of King's activism - his religion. More so than he referenced the brave black leaders of previous civil rights campaigns, King drew upon the writings and ideas of social gospel thinkers, such as Walter Rauschenbusch and Reinhold Niebuhr. By analyzing King within the context of “the long social gospel movement” in addition to “the long civil rights movement,” we can explain his radical social mission in terms of race and class, but without marginalizing the Christian values at the core of his calling.

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Notes

1. King, Martin Luther Jr., “Beyond Vietnam,” in The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Carson, Clayborne (New York: Warner Books, 1998), 336 .

2. Sturm, Douglas, “Martin Luther King, Jr., as Democratic Socialist,” Journal of Religious Ethics 18 (Fall 1990): 79105 . Singh, Nikhil Pal, Black Is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004).

3. Singh, , Black is a Country, 2 .

4. Hall, Jacqueline Dowd, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” Journal of American History (March 2005): 1234 .

5. Baldwin, Lewis V., There Is a Balm in Gilead: The Cultural Roots of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 2 . For more on King and the black church, see also Cone, James H., “Martin Luther King, Jr.: Black Theology—Black Church,” Theology Today 40 (January 1984): 409-12.

6. King, Martin Luther Jr., Stride toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958), 91 .

7. See Carson, Clayborne, “Martin Luther King, Jr., and the African-American Social Gospel,” in African-American Christianity: Essays in History, ed. Johnson, Paul E. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 159-78. Carson challenges scholars such as Baldwin and Cone for producing a false dichotomy between King's African American religious experience and his academic study of white European theologians and American social gospel thinkers.

8. Baldwin acknowledges as much when he writes that “King… spoke of the necessity for the Negro church to remain true to its Social Gospel tradition… and that practical applications of Social Gospel principles had never required a retreat from black-church orthodoxy.” In this statement, Baldwin shows that scholars can recognize the centrality of the social gospel to King as a standard of ethics without marginalizing his relationship to the black church. See Baldwin, Lewis V., The Voice of Conscience: The Church in the Mind of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 140 .

9. Chappell, David L., A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

10. Honey, Michael K., Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007).

11. King, Martin Luther Jr., A Testament of Hope, 234 .

12. Ibid. 232.

13. King, Jr., Autobiography, 337 .

14. Ibid.

15. Howard Hopkins, C., The Rise of the Social Gospel in American Protestantism, 1865-1915 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940); Handy, Robert T., ed., The Social Gospel in America, 1870-1920 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966).

16. Lasch, Christopher, “Religious Contributions to Social Movements: Walter Rauschenbusch, the Social Gospel, and Its Critics,” Journal of Religious Ethics 18 (Spring 1990): 725 .

17. Luker, Ralph E., The Social Gospel in Black and White: American Racial Reform, 1885-1912 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991); Susan Hill Lindley, “Deciding Who Counts: Toward a Revised Definition of the Social Gospel,” and Trimiew, Darryl M., “The Social Gospel Movement and the Question of Race,” in The Social Gospel Today, ed. Evans, Christopher H. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 1737 .

18. Evans, Christopher H., “Introduction: Historical Integrity and Theological Recovery,” in Evans, The Social Gospel Today, 113 .

19. White, Ronald C. Jr., and Howard Hopkins, C., The Social Gospel: Religion and Reform in Changing America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1976), xi, 244.

20. Stackhouse, Max L., “The Fifth Social Gospel and the Global Mission of the Church,” in Evans, The Social Gospel Today, 146-51.

21. Sturm, “Martin Luther King Jr. as Democratic Socialist,” 84.

22. Smith, Kenneth L. and Zepp, Ira G. Jr., Search for the Beloved Community: The Thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1974), 2641 .

23. Chappell, , A Stone of Hope, 45 .

24. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Thich Nhat Hanh, “A Joint Statement,” of the International Committee of Conscience on Vietnam, quoted in Baldwin, , The Voice of Conscience, 212 .

25. King, Jr., Stride toward Freedom, 90 .

26. Ibid., 91.

27. Ibid.

28. Rauschenbusch, Walter, Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907; reprint, New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 6, 8.

29. Ibid., 50.

30. King, Jr., Stride toward Freedom, 91 .

31. King, Martin Luther Jr., Strength to Love (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963), 150 .

32. Ibid., 100.

33. King, Jr., Autobiography, 19 .

34. King, Jr., Strength to Love, 148 .

35. Niebuhr, Reinhold, Moral Man and Immoral Society: a Study in Ethics and Politics (New York: Scribner's Sons, 1932 ; reprint, New York: Scribner's Sons, 1960), 6.

36. Ibid, 72.

37. King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom, 99 .

38. King, Jr., “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” in A Testament of Hope, 37 .

39. Ibid, 18.

40. Chappell, , A Stone of Hope, 4854 .

41. Smith, and Zepp, Jr., Search for the Beloved Community, 71 .

42. Luker, Ralph E., “The Kingdom of God and Beloved Community in the Thought of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” in The Role of Ideas in the Civil Rights South, ed. Ownby, Ted (University Press of Mississippi, 2002), 50 .

43. Ibid., 73.

44. Fox, Richard Wightman, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 145 .

45. Niebuhr, Reinhold, Children of Light, Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense (New York: Scribner's Sons, 1947).

46. Ibid., 133.

47. Ibid., 140.

48. King, Jr., Strength to Love, 133 .

49. King, Martin Luther Jr., “Give Us the Ballot,” in A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Carson, Clayborne and Shepard, Kris (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2001), 54 .

50. King, Jr., Stride toward Freedom, 97 .

51. King, Jr., Strength to Love, 149 .

52. King, Jr., Stride toward Freedom, 99 .

53. King, Jr., Autobiography, 31.

54. Smith, and Zepp, Jr., Search for the Beloved Community, 31 . Note the social gospel language in the phrase “if ethical action here and now is to be sustained.“

55. King, Jr., Strength to Love, 148 .

56. King, Martin Luther Jr., “Reinhold Niebuhr's Ethical Dualism,” quoted in Smith, and Zepp, Jr., Search for Beloved Community, 81 .

57. Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society.

58. King, Jr., Strength to Love, 155 .

59. Ibid., 148.

60. King, Jr., Stride toward Freedom, 95 .

61. Smith, and Zepp, Jr., Search for the Beloved Community, 2 .

62. Ibid., 151. 63. Ibid., 15.

64. King, Jr., Stride toward freedom, 101 . The essay “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” like many of King's works, is printed with only minor revisions in several compilations, including Strength to Love and the Autobiography.

65. King, Martin Luther Jr., “The Ethical Demands for Integration,” in A Testament of Hope, 124 . For more on King's conception of redemptive suffering, see “Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience,” in A Testament of Hope, 47.

66. King, Jr., Stride toward Freedom, 98 .

67. Niebuhr, , Moral Man and Immoral Society, 244 .

68. Ibid., 252.

69. Ibid., 264.

70. King, Jr., Strength to Love, 48 .

71. King, Martin Luther Jr., “The American Dream,” in A Testament of Hope, 215 .

72. King, Jr., Stride toward Freedom, 100 .

73. King, Martin Luter Jr., “The Birth of a New Nation,” in A Call to Conscience, 20 .

74. King, Jr., Stride toward Freedom, 95 .

75. King, Martin Luther Jr., “The Ethical Demands for Integration,” and “An Address before the National Press Club,” in A Testament of Hope, 122, 102.

76. King, Martin Luther Jr., “Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom,” in A Testament of Hope, 58 .

77. Smith, and Zepp, Jr., Search for the Beloved Community, 137 .

78. Evans, Christopher H., The Kingdom Is Always but Coming: A Life of Walter Rauschenbusch (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 318 .

79. For more on King, Jr.'s radical move beyond his father, see Baldwin, , The Voice of Conscience, 47 .

80. Quoted in ibid., 63.

81. King, Martin Luther Jr., “The Burning Truth in the South,” and “A Time to Break Silence,” in A Testament of Hope, 98, 241.

82. King, Jr., “The American Dream,” 209.

83. Gutierrez, Gustavo, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation (1973; reprint, New York: Orbis Books, 1988), xxii .

84. Ibid., 171.

85. Trimiew, “The Social Gospel Movement and the Question of Race,” 33-37.

86. Gutierrez, , A Theology of Liberation, xxix .

87. Ibid., xxx-xxxi.

88. King, Martin Luther Jr., “A Testament of Hope,” in A Testament of Hope, 316 .

89. King, Jr., Strength to Love, 32 .

90. King, Jr., Autobiography, 107 .

91. King, Jr., “A Testament of Hope,” 318 .

92. King, Jr., Autobiography, 123 .

93. See Baldwin, , The Voice of Conscience, 206-7.

94. King, Jr., Autobiography, 134 .

95. Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream,” in A Call to Conscience, 85.

96. King, Jr., “A Testament of Hope,” 315.

97. Singh, , Black Is a Country, 14 .

98. King, Jr., Strength to Love, 28 .

99. Ibid., 92.

100. King, Martin Luther Jr., “I've Been to the Mountaintop,” in A Call to Conscience, 217-18.

101. For a history of the concept of accompaniment in liberation theology, including the civil rights movement in the United States, see Lynd, Staughton, Accompanying: Pathways to Social Change (Oakland: PM Press, 2012).

102. King, Jr., “Beyond Vietnam,” in A Call to Conscience, 145 .

103. White, and Hopkins, , The Social Gospel, xix .

104. King, Jr., “A Testament of Hope,” 323. 105. King, Jr., “Beyond Vietnam,” 153.

106. Singh, , Black Is a Country, 2 .

107. King, Jr., Strength to Love, 101 .

108. Sturm, “Martin Luther King Jr. as Democratic Socialist,” 91.

109. Cha-Jua, Sundiata Keita and Lang, Clarence, “The ‘Long Movement’ as Vampire: Temporal and Spatial Fallacies in Recent Black Freedom Studies,” Journal of African American History 92 (Spring 2007): 265-88.

109. Cha-Jua, Sundiata Keita and Lang, Clarence, “The ‘Long Movement’ as Vampire: Temporal and Spatial Fallacies in Recent Black Freedom Studies,” Journal of African American History 92 (Spring 2007): 265-88.

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Religion and American Culture
  • ISSN: 1052-1151
  • EISSN: 1533-8568
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