Let Justice Roll: Stirring Words to the Christian South From MLK

As a transplant, I have come to love the South, to make it my home, to be my place of mission and residence. Its problems I have adopted as my own. Its issues, mine. Its history… mine too. So I take part in the culpability of the below words, simultaneously knowing how wrong they are, but also knowing how easy it is to capitulate to the status quo for all people, Northerners and Southerners alike:

“A Call for Unity” (April 12, 1963)

(Letter written by several white clergymen to Dr. King discouraging him from taking civil rights actions in Birmingham, Alabama)

“We are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely… We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham. We commend the community as a whole, and the local news media and law enforcement officials in particular, on the calm manner in which these demonstrations have been handled. We urge the public to continue to show restraint should the demonstrations continue, and the law enforcement officials to remain calm and continue to protect our city from violence. We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.

MLK’s Response (April 16, 1963):


I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul… I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious-education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”

There is so much richly worded here.

I take note of:

the bright hills of creative protest” – what are these “bright hills”? What does ‘missional’ really look like right here in the rapidly diversifying suburbs of Katy and Houston?

What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?” – in these lofty, massive, and beautiful church education buildings… what kind of church education? I am an educator of faith – a teacher… what am I teaching? Who is my God, really? No slam on large churches; I get it – it’s Texas – but to what ends? Purposes? Again: What does ‘missional’ really look like right here in the rapidly diversifying suburbs of Katy and Houston?

other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul” – he’s talking Greek philosophy here, and elsewhere. King is right. Too much of American religion is just to get our souls outta here. Till then, who cares if justice rolls or not, right? So long as we get our disembodied souls to heaven…

pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities” – whenever we Christians pontificate away the distress of others… we are failing the injunction of 1 John 3:18 ” let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”

Every year I try not to just take a holiday off (thanx Martin!), but to read, re-read, be rebuked, and challenged by his words. To re-examine my blind spots and callouses. To confess and repent of them.

Let justice roll.

Published by Wayne Park

Asian-American clergyman thinking about issues of faith, place, race and culture-making in the vast city of Houston, TX

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