A Letter from Birmingham: MLK, Bernie Sanders and the Black Church

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caraToday I’m hosting my friend Cara McClure as a guest blogger. Cara is an activist, business owner, and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Magic City chapter. This does not represent an endorsement of a candidate for me.

Our Dear Alabama Clergy:

In 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote A Letter from a Birmingham Jail. You’ve probably read it, just as I have. It was a stunning letter, addressed primarily to Birmingham’s white moderate who preferred the absence of tension to the struggle for liberation.  In it, King said he was more frustrated and disappointed with the white moderate’s inaction than he was with white supremacists’ outright hate in the city.

Sadly, I think King’s letter is again timely. His words again ring true when he writes, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Only this time, he wouldn’t be addressing it solely to the white moderate in Birmingham. He’d certainly be addressing it there. But, in 2016, he’d also be addressing his letter to the Black church in Alabama as well.

Because, like the white moderate in the 1960s, the Black church seems to have lost its way in the call to stand for freedom and liberation of the oppressed. It has become content with the status quo of lukewarm political action.

So like King, I must make some honest confessions to you, my Christian brothers, sisters, and leaders in the Black church. Like King was with white moderates, I have been gravely disappointed with my lukewarm brothers and sisters in the Black church as our communities continue to face modern iterations of the same old injustices against Black people — police brutality, socioeconomic inequality, unequal educational opportunities, and high rates of incarceration — without taking to the streets to proclaim Black Lives Matter.

Not only that, but we have gravitated toward a candidate — Hillary Clinton — that in many ways is representative of today’s version of the white moderates to whom King addressed his famous jailhouse letter. Today, the Black community in Alabama seems poised to vote for the very white moderate — committed to public lip service and political inaction — that King called worse than outright white supremacists.

Maybe it’s because we’ve forgotten the political legacy of the Clintons. Maybe we’ve forgotten the role the Clintons played in accelerating and deepening the problem of mass incarceration with their “tough on crime” agenda that has disproportionately caged Black people. Maybe we’ve forgotten the role the Clintons played in recreating a welfare system deeply divided along racial biases with more punitive penalties for Black people.

Maybe we’ve forgotten that time and again the Clinton political legacy has been one of lukewarm lip service for the liberation for Black people, followed by the political betrayal. It’s all too reminiscent of 1960s white moderates who paid lip service to racial equality but never backed up their words with political action that mattered.

Maybe it’s because we don’t really know who Bernie Sanders is and what he stands for. More than any other candidate, Bernie stands for racial justice. He stands for economic justice. He stands for the disenfranchised, oppressed, and marginalized. In many ways, throughout his life, he has taken up King’s final, unfinished call, seen in the Poor People’s Campaign, for economic equality and liberation as a critical component to racial equality.

Of all the candidates, only Bernie Sanders has done the work of standing with us and marching with us for freedom and equality. He organized sit-ins. He worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. But, crucially, his work didn’t stop there. Throughout his career, he has consistently stood up for justice and equality everywhere and anywhere. Maybe he knew that a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

And so I confess that I’ve been disappointed that, by and large, Black leaders in Alabama have supported a candidate whose political legacy includes creating a more racially divided and oppressive nation where being Black requires you to pay an economic and social penalty.

It’s the same kind of lukewarm acceptance King loathed of white moderates who wouldn’t dare to stand up to the status quo.

So I’m calling on Black Alabama clergy to stand up to the political status quo of our time.

Like King, stand up to the lukewarm white moderate who has never had Black interests and liberation in mind as it seeks to shore up its power with empty promises to the Black community.

Because, if King were around today, I don’t think he’d be writing only to the white moderate from a Birmingham jail. He’d be writing to the Black church as well, because its lukewarm acceptance of Black liberation has been more bewildering than the outright rejection of it by others.

I don’t say this because I hate the church or am anti-religious. Quite the contrary, I’m writing precisely because I love you so dearly and because the movement for Black liberation needs you in Alabama again.

We need your faith. We need your spirit. We need you to proclaim the prophetic tradition of the Black church, of Jesus himself. We need you to reclaim the radical Gospel. We need you to remember that the Black church is rooted in resistance and the experience of oppression just as the Christian church itself was, not lukewarm acceptance and passive promises.

I am writing to you with an open hand to join us, not a shaking fist to condemn you.

I am writing to you because I want to remind you of the great story, our story, the story of Jesus.

Jesus was born in poverty to an oppressed people, a people occupied and brutalized by a police state. He was born into marginalization but he walked for justice and he spoke up for liberation. And he died at the hands of the state, crucified.

I want to remind you that Jesus, the Crucified One, stands with the crucified and marginalized ones today. People of color throughout Alabama have been marginalized through redlining, through economic injustice, through outright terror and now through gentrification.

We need the Black church to come back from the lukewarm waters of the white moderate, to wade back into the waters of justice that roll down like raging rivers.

In solidarity,

Cara McClure

 Image Credit: George Conklin/Flickr, used under Creative Commons 

 

About David R. Henson

David Henson received his Master of Arts from Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, after receiving a Lilly Grant for religious education for journalists. He is ordained in the Episcopal Church as a priest. He lives in North Carolina, is a father of two boys, and the husband of a medical resident.

Connect with David through his Facebook page, Twitter, or Instagram.


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