Tag: Martin Luther King

The real reason Republicans boycotted the March

“80% of life is showing up”

By Alan Bean

Why did every single Republican official who was invited to speak at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington decline?

The easy answer is that they aren’t big on the civil rights movement, but that’s not true.  When push comes to shove, Republican leaders are willing to admit that Jim Crow laws were a bad idea and that equal access to the American dream is a good thing.  They might not have anything good to say about the civil rights leaders of 2013, but they are capable of honoring Martin Luther King when the occasion calls for it.  In fact, they even held their own quiet, unpublicized commemoration featuring the handful of black congressional Republicans earlier in the week.  Associating with conservative Blacks is always a winner for Republicans.

Attending an event organized by mainstream Black America is another question entirely.

The Republican Party may be embarrassed by the fact that not a single member of the red team accepted an invitation to climb the steps of the Lincoln Memorial last Wednesday and say some nice things about civil rights.

But here’s the problem, the snub didn’t look good to Black people (of every political persuasion) not did it impress white liberals.  But, the culture war being what it is, these people won’t vote Republican under any circumstances.

The simple truth is that snubbing civil rights leaders doesn’t hurt Republicans politically and it might even help.  No one wanted to be the only representative of the Republican brand associated with last weeks commemoration.  It wouldn’t send the right message to the only voters that count to most politicians–primary voters.  That’s where the real election takes place in most districts.

True, snubbing the organizers of the event reinforced the Republican reputation as the Party of White; but how many conservative white voters care enough about that to switch their votes.  Five?  None?  Somewhere in between?

On the other hand, being associated with an event this public–especially if you are the only Republican on the podium–could lose you the votes of the Tea Party types who vote disproportionately in Republican primaries.  It might not be a big effect.  You might only lose a few hundred votes.  But when you know that appearing at the event won’t gain you a single vote it doesn’t take a math whiz to work the equation.  Speaking would have been a net loser for most Republicans and they have the political sophistication to know it.

Woody Allen once remarked that 80% of life is showing up.  That’s certainly true for congressional Democrats.  All they have to do to look good in the eyes of Black America is to make an appearance.  The expectation bar has been set that low.

John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson had to sacrifice a major element of their political base (the Solid South) to do the right thing.

Democrats like Barack Obama and the Clintons win the support of Black America simply by showing up.  Nice work if you can get it.

What would King make of Obama?

By Alan Bean

Casey Sigal is an unsentimental Englishman who worked the civil rights beat in the early 1960s.  This piece in The Guardian touches on themes often ignored in mainstream reporting of this  week’s commemoration of the March on Washington.

The march, Sigal reminds us, unfolded against a backdrop of fear bordering on dread.   Prisons had been emptied to make room for the scores of people sure to be arrested.  This is the way official Washington still looked at Negroes in the summer of 1963.

Moreover, the movement itself was sadly divided over tactics.  If Martin Luther King Jr. is the man most of us associate with the March on Washington it was probably because of his unique ability to maintain dialogue with the old civil rights establishment, the young firebrands associated with SNCC, and the incendiary leadership of Malcolm X.  All sides grudgingly agreed to let King take center stage because they knew he understood where they were coming from even if he couldn’t always agree with their conclusions.

King was a feared man in 1963.  He came preaching peace and forgiveness, but John and Bobby Kennedy knew they couldn’t embrace King’s message without kissing the Dixiecrat South goodbye.  John Kennedy died a few weeks later because his heart, if not his head, was with the civil rights movement and everyone in the South knew it.   King was willing to whittle down white fear to a manageable size, but he made no attempt to placate it altogether.  White racism was, and remains, an irrational, some would say demonic reality that must be rejected without reservation.

It is the question that introduces and concludes this piece that really intrigues me: what would MLK make of president Barack Obama?  Sigal doesn’t think the civil rights giant would be too impressed.  What do you think?

Remembering my time at the 1963 March on Washington

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary, we must ask: what would the Rev Martin Luther King think of Obama’s presidency?

By Casey Sigal

Saturday 24 August 2013 07.00 EDT

March on Washington

Crowds in front of the Washington Monument at the March on Washington. Photograph: Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

In 1963, a teenage woman civil rights worker in Albany, Georgia, said, “If you’re not prepared to die here then you’re not facing reality”.

Any of us who participated in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a combination of sweet nostalgia and mixed feelings about its “legacy”. For me, and so many others, the event itself was redemptive and personally transforming. It had been a terrible year for African Americans and civil rights activists, a blood-drenched inventory of violence that included the jail beating of Fannie Lou Hamer and assassination of Medgar Evers. So on that Wednesday, 28 August, when 300,000 Americans from right across what I call the “decency spectrum” descended on an almost deserted Washington, it was as if a Norman Rockwell painting had come alive. (more…)

Learning to love a Thermostat God

By Alan Bean

“Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?”

This question was originally scrawled in the margin of an Alabama newspaper by an exasperated Martin Luther King Jr.  The church was once a thermostat “that transformed the mores of society,” King told the white clergymen of Birmingham, but it has degenerated into a thermometer that merely reflects the “ideas and principles of public opinion.”

Organized religion takes a dreadful beating in the final section of King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.  From the earliest days of the civil rights movement, King alleges, most religious leaders have “remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”

In the midst of “a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic justice,” white clergymen have stood on the sidelines mouthing “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”

Preachers have preached the heretical notion that the gospel is unrelated to social issues.  They have concocted “a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, unbiblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.”

The comes the most chilling indictment of all:

On sweltering summer summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward . . . Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here?  Who is their God?”

A thermometer church speaks for a thermometer God who reflects “the ideas and principles of public opinion.”  Fifty years ago, the church was, to use King’s phrase, “the arch defender of the status quo”.  Now we can’t even manage that.  While the larger society inches graceward, we cling to our cherished bigotries.  Our thermometer God lies shattered on the floor and no power on earth can put the pieces back together.

When the Richmond Baptist Association refused to discipline Ginter Park Baptist Church for ordaining a gay man to minister to persons with disabilities and special needs, it was simply acknowledging a change in the social temperature.  Ginter Park wasn’t taking a principled stand on gay rights or marriage equality; the congregation was simply recognizing the gifts of God in a particular believer.  The Richmond Association was neither condoning nor condemning the congregation’s action; it merely decided, albeit by a slim margin, to sweep the matter under the ecclesiastical carpet.

Conflict avoidance worked just fine when the church served as a social thermometer, but those days are gone.

And that’s just fine.  In fact, it’s great!  Only a thermostat God can save us.

When was the last time you heard a Baptist minister, conservative or moderate, talk about God’s love for undocumented immigrants?

I don’t want to hear partisan politics from the pulpit anymore than you do; but the gospel of the kingdom transcends politics because the biblical God transcends borders, skin color, language, gender, nationality or any other arbitrary human distinction.

Our preaching must reckon with a thermostat God who is eternally fiddling with the social temperature.  But what can a thermostat God do with a church that, having lost the power to reinforce the moral statues quo, stands on the sidelines mumbling “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”

Not much of anything, it seems.

The church will leaven the social order when the gospel of the kingdom leavens the church.  Light generates heat.  A thermostat God can’t thaw a frozen culture without cranking up the temperature in the Body of Christ.

Haunted by America

By Alan Bean

It’s 3:41 am, but sleep eludes me.  I am haunted by America.

A few hours ago I walked from the Supreme Court building to the new Martin Luther King Jr Memorial and back.  Along the way, I stopped by the Lincoln Memorial, wandering among the perennial tourists.  A pudgy white boy of nine or ten, stood on the steps beside me.  “Hey, Larry,” he called to his friend, “‘I have a dream.'”

Looking back across the reflecting pond to the Washington Memorial, I remembered that day, almost fifty years ago now, when Mahalia Jackson and Peter, Paul and Mary sang and Martin delivered his iconic speech.  The great divide in American politics and religion is between those who remember that day in 1963 with a aching veneration, and those who regard Martin’s Dream Speech with an odd mixture of respect, dread and discomfort.

I grew up with King’s speeches.  In my native Canada, the great civil rights leader was regarded as latter day prophet, a civil rights hero.  My generation of Canadian youth defined itself in opposition to America and its war in Vietnam.  We were impressed by America, a nation with ten times our population and fifty times our military and economic clout.  There was no sense that the great nation to the south meant us any harm.  But we were mystified by Jim Crow, and Vietnam, and cold war zealotry.  At the height of the civil rights movement, two teachers from my home town of Yellowknife in the Canadian Northwest Territories took a summer trip through the American South.  They told us of an encounter with a lovely woman in Georgia who made her Negro maids eat in the kitchen because it was improper for white and black people to share a meal.  Our teachers were appalled by such sentiments.

Canadians, of course, have our own species of bigotry but, like the woman from Georgia, we were largely blind to the sins that beset us. (more…)