WASHINGTON — In the years before he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. shifted in his speeches from a focus on achieving legal racial equality toward something broader: Social and economic justice for all. Workers’ rights, environmental justice, anti-war activism — these were King’s demands by the time he was gunned down in Memphis.
On Wednesday, the 50th anniversary of his death, faith groups across the ideological spectrum are turning again to the need for broad systemic change. After a decade of talk about a “post-racial America” and a focus on interracial dialogue in some quarters of American life, many faith groups are back to where King left off.
Thousands are expected on a windy National Mall in the District of Columbia for a rally organized by the National Council of Churches, a network of 38 mostly progressive denominations — white and black — as well as several major African American Christian umbrella groups and the largest American Jewish denomination, among others. Representatives will attend the event, called “Act Now! United to End Racism,” from groups including the Church of God in Christ, a predominantly black Pentecostal denomination, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Organizers say they’re expecting more than 10,000 people. The event, they say, is depicted as the first step in a long process that will have people return to their communities to “address racism in the areas of church life and practices, criminal, economic and social justice, civil and human rights, environmental justice, immigration, media and education.” There will be sermons and speeches and experts who focus on “anti-racism work” that ranges from training about white supremacy to programs black churches in gentrifying areas can use to train homeowners on how not to fall victim to a real estate scam.
Speakers include celebrities from the black church world and white faith leaders who focus on racial justice. They include: gospel singer-pastor Marvin Sapp, Texas megapastor Rev. Frederick Haynes, actor-activists Louis Gossett Jr. and Danny Glover, African Methodist Episcopal Church leader Rev. Vashti Murphy McKenzie, as well as Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson and white religious figures the Rev. Jim Wallis and Rev. Jennifer Harvey, who both focus on dismantling white supremacy.
“Everybody has a different interest. We’re dealing with churches in rural as well as urban areas. We’re inviting people who are not part of any church,” said Jacquelyn Dupont Walker, co-chair of the National Council of Churches Racial Justice Task Force. “Now is the time to partner with any and everyone who wants to work on these issues. We’re not trying to send everyone in one direction. If I’m in a community where the major industry is the prison, I’m going to have a whole different perspective than an urban area where they believe people are being imprisoned unfairly. We want that same energy to go back home.”
In Memphis, the location of King’s assassination, conservative evangelicals are also working to define what ending racism looks like. The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, was shocked that what they expected to be a small April 4 MLK anniversary conference had drawn 3,500 pastors and lay leaders from the church as of Tuesday.
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With about 15 million members, the Southern Baptist Convention is the country’s largest Protestant denomination.
Russell Moore, the commission’s leader, said the group wanted to do a specifically evangelical event “given the silence and/or hostility to civil rights that often came from evangelical churches during the time of King. We want to talk about why that was, and how do we apply the Gospel to questions of racial justice and reconciliation?”
The two-day conference in Memphis will feature leaders of various racial and ethnic backgrounds.
“Some people will talk policy. Others will talk about culture change within congregations. Others will address personal blind spots,” he said.
“When you look at the ministry of Martin Luther King, he did both — voting rights and civil rights laws, but at the same time he’s addressing the problem of sin at the personal level. He’s calling for reform but also for repentance. Repentance without reform is shallow. But reform without repentance is hell.”
As part of the D.C. anti-racism event, on Thursday morning organizers will train participants on how to lobby their members of Congress — then go back to their districts to continue the effort. They’ll teach attendees to communicate to elected officials that their constituents care about these issues, and to monitor the officials’ votes to hold them responsible.
The organizers will hand out talking points on a wide range of issues — criminal justice, economic justice, environmental justice, education, immigration — so that participants can choose which to focus on. They expect mass incarceration will be of particular interest.
“Most of the mainstream churches are not actively dealing with social justice. They may have departments and staff that raise the issues and write things. We’re talking about now engaging the people in the pews,” Walker said.
“There’s not a single denomination, a single city, where there’s not partnership opportunities that have been missed simply because we have a different denomination, a different color ... and we’re going beyond Christendom. People in the Jewish community, the Sikh, the Muslim, the Bahaii community — everyone is being invited,” she said.
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The language of the D.C. event — its name, its program — is quite secular sounding. Walker noted that some speakers are people “who don’t believe the church is worth anything anymore, and we have to accept that criticism, because we have been dormant on this issue more than we should have” — ironic considering how church-centered the Civil Rights movement was in King’s time.
Mainline Protestant denominations have issued apologies for racism but often failed to follow that up with work to address modern-day racial injustices, she said.
The question is in how to approach fighting racism. Does it center on truth-telling — an admission of racism as a reality and a sin and a deepening of interracial relationships? Or should it be about marshaling power to change policies involving criminal justice, educational inequity and other issues? Some black faith leaders won’t even use the word “reconciliation” because they think that over the decades, it has kept the focus on the small, interpersonal level rather than systemic change.
“I can tell you, the second you tell me, ‘Come participate in racial reconciliation,’ I’m rolling my eyes,” the Rev. Jonathan Walton, minister of Harvard University’s Memorial Church, told The Post recently. “I don’t need you to hug me and tell me you’re sorry. I need you to raise your voice against predatory lending within communities of color.”