I was 15 years old in February, 1978 when the TV miniseries King was televised. Race was not something that was ever really talked about in my family, but my desire to watch Paul Winfield’s portrayal of Dr. King over three evenings touched off a heated discussion. I don’t remember my parents’ exact words, but they included “troublemaker” and “communist.” No way was I going to take over the big color Magnavox TV in the living room for three nights; I ended up watching in my room on the snowy-pictured little black and white TV that traveled on a rickety cart around my house.
My parents were products of their time and place. They both grew up in segregated Norfolk, Virginia, and they lived in the south all their lives. I never heard them utter the N-word or make any overtly racist comments, but neither do I remember ever having a person of color as a guest in our home or in the pews of our church. The only african-American I remember in my parents’ lives was the ringer on my dad’s office softball team; he definitely stood out from the other players on that “SCL Executive Department” squad.
I hope that it’s a sign of generational progress that Dr. King is among my heroes, and that attitudes such as my parents’ about his legacy are not so much heard – at least publicly. And that is the way it should be – as Eugene Robinson reminded in his Sunday Washington Post column, Dr. King’s dream transcended division, especially politics:
This is not a partisan message; King was every bit as tough on Democrats as Republicans. His activism even transcended ideology. His call for social justice and his opposition to the Vietnam War were rightly seen as liberal, but his insistence on the primacy of faith and family was deeply conservative. His birthday is a national holiday because his words and deeds ennoble us all.
Yes, we have come a long way.
But . . .
We are still in many ways a nation divided. Our schools and workplaces are for the most part integrated, but when we depart for our homes we still segregate ourselves, if not by law, then by habit. Especially on Sundays. When my children grow up, their memories of family attitudes toward race will be different than the ones I grew up with, but like me they will remember the churches they grew up in as places where mostly white people worshiped.
Dr. King famously said, “eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour and Sunday school is still the most segregated school of the week.” Has that really changed? I know there are churches that are wonderfully integrated, but at least in my experience that is the exception rather than the rule.
According to a recent study by Baylor University, nine in ten churches have a single racial group that accounts for more than 80% of their membership.
Dr. King was first and foremost a pastor – he was the son and grandson of pastors. It is ironic that his legacy is perhaps least reflected in the church.
As a pastor, I can preach about God’s love of all people regardless of race. I can remind people that Jesus broke down race and all other earthly, sinful barriers (Galatians 3:28). I am blessed to be in a church where everyone is welcomed . . . once they are in the church . But how do you get folks of different ethnicity to enter the same church in the first place?
On this day we celebrate the life and work of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I am troubled by this question. I am troubled by the example that our churches present to the world – in fact when I was away from the church the segregation of the pews was one reason I would give to dismiss those who tried to share the Gospel with me.
I don’t have the answer, but I trust that the Holy Spirit who gathers God’s people into His Church is working to break down those barriers.
Perhaps my children’s children will remember growing up in churches that were just as integrated as the rest of their world.
That, at least, is my dream.