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'An uncompromising racial justice message'

How the Revd Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s thinking on racial justice continues to challenge the church today. By Richard Reddie  

One of the consequences of the greater focus on ‘Black British History’ during Black History Month is that we tend now not to explore the ideas and activities of Revd Dr Martin Luther King Jr, the American Baptist pastor and civil rights leader. Thankfully, because of Dr King’s international profile, and the fact that his work to combat racism resonated with (Black) British people, he visited Britain on a number of occasions during the 1960s. As such, a fascinating aspect of Black British history is the impact Dr King’s visits had on the social, spiritual and cultural psyche of this country.  

History shows that in 1964, Dr King met with Black British campaigners such as Claudia Jones and Dame Jocelyn Barrow, among others, about how best to strategically tackle ‘racial discrimination’ in the UK. King proved to be the catalyst behind the establishment of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD), which was the first campaigning organisation in Britain to fight racism. CARD successfully lobbied for ‘race relations’ legislation and was responsible for the first Race Relations laws in 1965. 

Dr King escalated to international prominence while leading the one-year Montgomery (Alabama) Bus Boycott from 1955-56. Inspired by this, Black people in Britain organised the Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963, due to the refusal of the Bristol Omnibus Company to employ Black or Asian bus crews in the city. This campaign, which was led by Black youth worker, Paul Stephenson, was successful in forcing the bus company to change its hiring policies.  

While Dr King inspired many secular organisations to fight for racial justice, his impact on churches and Christian groups was negligible; there is little evidence that his sojourns inspired British church leaders, or the established/historic churches to engage in this vital work. For instance, King’s UK sermons and talks did not result in a Christian version of CARD during his lifetime (King was assassinated in 1968). Much later, the legendary Bishop Wilfred Wood, the first Black Bishop in the Church of England would establish the pioneering ‘Martin Luther King 12’, a community organisation committed to upholding Dr King’s principles, but this group has operated outside of the church’s remit.  

I would argue that this is a result of the churches’ perennial struggle to fully engage with Dr King’s uncompromising racial justice message, which continues to make many in the church very uncomfortable. Many church leaders prefer to go no further than Dr King’s legendary 1963 ‘I have a Dream’ speech, with its Utopian-like sentiments of ‘little Black [children] and little White [children] playing together, and steer clear of his latter commitment to the ‘Beloved Community’ on which racial justice would be one of the pillars. Indeed, after 1965, when King sharpened his message (and critique of the USA), he would repeatedly lambaste his country for the ‘triple evils’ of racism, economic inequality (caused by capitalism) and militarism (the Vietnam War). Dr King believed that capitalism was by nature exploitative and a key cause of racial division; in short it was beyond redemption. A beloved community was one that valued all life, bringing to the centre all those who were kept on the margins.  

Moreover, King dispelled all notions that he was a ‘priest’ or pastor who said, ‘everything was going to be alright’, but a prophet who called out racism wherever he saw it. He argued that ‘America may well go to hell’ as it was ‘Dives’ who was ignoring the poor and Black ‘Lazarus’ (Luke 16: 19-31). King famously said that 11am on a Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America, and that White Christians calling for a ‘gradualist’ approach to change did not have the best interests of [African Americans] at heart. King said these words during his final Sunday sermon on 31 March 1968, at the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Washington DC, where he also said: ‘Racial injustice is the Black man’s burden and the White man’s shame’, and that ‘…racism is a way of life for the vast majority of White Americans…[and] even the Church must share the guilt.’   

It is my contention that British churches have always struggled with racial justice. Those who talk about ‘social justice’ often do not include the racial dimension as part of the conversation, while others mistake social justice with social welfare - confusing ‘treating the symptoms’ with ‘treating the problem’.  Dr King believed in dealing with the problem - the ‘racism that exists in the hearts of men [and women]’, calling for a fundamental transformation and eradication of this evil and sin. The British church has a tendency to describe racism in abstract terms, failing to use the old fashioned, but apt phrase ‘racial hatred’ to describe certain abhorrent behaviours and practices. The fact is, ‘hatred’ akin to sin, has no place in the church and we should ‘call it out’ and remove it.  

Dr King was brave and mentioned on a number of occasions that his stance for justice would result in his demise: He did not suffer from a martyr complex, but the honest belief that certain reactionary powers did not want to see the changes he proposed. The question is, does the church really want to see the kind of changes Dr King suggested? The ‘triple evils’ still remain, but one could add the climate emergency to that equation, as poor, Black people throughout the world tend to be some of the most impacted by global warming - and the least responsible for the problem.  

On 29 October 2021, we remembered Dr King’s first preaching engagement at Bloomsbury Baptist Church in central London in 1961, at which he called for churches in Britain to engage in the work to effect greater justice in society. The 60th anniversary is an apt moment to continue the conversation, and the work Dr King spoke about that day! 

Richard Reddie is the Director of Justice and Inclusion for Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.

He is the author of Martin Luther King Jr - History Maker (2011)


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