MLK Warned Us of the Well-Intentioned Liberal

The Nation |

For the first time since Congress passed legislation to make the third Monday of January a national holiday to honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the National Mall—including the memorial dedicated to King’s honor—is closed due to President Trump’s insistence that Congress submit to his demand for a national monument to racism and fear. We must be clear that this is the impasse we face. Democrats cannot be blamed for failing to compromise.
On the opening day of the 116th Congress, Democratic leadership in the House took up bipartisan legislation to reopen the Congress that their colleagues in the Senate had already compromised to approve. Only one thing kept 800,000 federal employees from receiving their paychecks this past week: the refusal of Trump and his congressional enablers to consider that legislation.

Fifty-one years ago, Dr. King and the Poor People’s Campaign threatened to bring the federal government to standstill in order to demand that it serve everyone in America’s multi-ethnic democracy. In 2019, President Trump has shuttered the government to demand that we build a bulwark against the browning of America.

This is, as he promised it would be, Trump’s shutdown. But the president is not acting alone. Congressional Republicans who have been unwilling to stand up to the him for two years created the conditions for this present crisis. And all along the way, Trump’s white evangelical boosters have offered their blessing. Defending Trump on Fox News, the Rev. Robert Jeffress argued recently that Trump’s wall cannot be immoral because Heaven itself has walls. He did not mention the Bible’s testimony that Heaven’s gates are always open.


Though most religious leaders are not Trumpvangelicals like Jeffress, we must recognize the complicity of so-called moderates in a moment of crisis if we are to honor the memory of Dr. King. While most people today recognize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as both a great American and a great preacher, we would do well to remember that he was not affirmed by a majority of Christian leaders in his own day, black or white.

When we celebrate King, it is easy to conjure the image of a Klan preacher spewing hatred against the civil-rights movement, just as Trumpvangelicals offer a religious blessing to Trump’s white nationalism today. But segregationist preachers were not the only religious resistance to King’s efforts for systemic justice in America. Dr. King’s own denomination, the National Baptist Convention, pushed him out along with other Baptist preachers who insisted on the tactic of nonviolent direct action. Then as now, the opposition to reconstruction of American democracy claimed the moral narrative in our common life.


King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” perhaps his most famous written work, was penned in response to seven Christian ministers and a rabbi in Alabama. In the opening lines of their “Good Friday Statement,” sent to Dr. King April 12, 1963, the ministers note that they had already written “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense,” a statement sent to him January 16, 1963. They do not try to defend white supremacy; in fact, they acknowledge the existence of “various problems that cause racial friction and unrest.” But they object staunchly to the way in which Dr. King and the civil-rights movement have confronted Jim Crow laws, demanding change through nonviolent direct action. Such demands, these religious leaders insist, should be “pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets.”


Such was the “common sense” of faith leaders in 1960s Birmingham. They thought they understood how change must be pursued: legally, and with deference to the order that white supremacy built and Bull Connor—the city’s doggedly pro-segregation commissioner—controlled. If King and others weren’t willing to meet the city fathers on their terms and compromise, then these religious leaders believed they were contributing to hatred and violence.

Dr. King objected—and his polemical response is what we remember half a century later. But the fact that the ecumenical leadership of the faith community in Alabama at the time felt self-assured in making this statement is a testimony to how prevalent their political “realism” was across theological traditions.

We must not deceive ourselves. Even as we gather in churches, synagogues, community centers, and university halls across America to honor the legacy of Dr. King this weekend, the so-called moderates’ call for compromise is drowning out King’s insistence that we cannot submit to the terms of white supremacy. Trump’s immoral demand for an unnecessary wall is an effort to concretize every lie that has been told about immigrants by this administration. Such a wall would be as poisonous to our common life as the “whites only” signs in 1960s Birmingham were to the citizens Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference came to support in their campaign to tear down Jim Crow.

King understood that whenever we compromise with a lie about who people are, we empower the political forces that have exploited our nation’s divisions to cling to power. The same politicians who want a wall today are also blocking voting rights and the expansion of healthcare to all Americans; they are the same people who have deregulated corporate polluters and denied climate science—the same ones who insist on increasing investment in the war economy while slashing our nation’s safety net and denying workers the right to earn a living wage.

We must be clear: Trump’s demand for a wall is not about border security. It is about a lie as sinister as the claim at the heart of Jim Crow—that America’s future depends on the values of white rule, not the promise of the multi-ethnic democracy we have struggled toward in this land for 400 years. We must not make the same mistake that the clergy of Birmingham made in 1963. If we would honor King, then let us follow him in refusing to compromise with a lie.