Hello and welcome to our first blog post of the Biden Presidency!
This week marked the commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a Presidential Inauguration, and Future Hindsight’s return to a podcast app near you.
Our 13th season holds the magnifying glass to systemic racism in America in its many different forms. We have a great two months of content lined up to share with you, from education discrimination to government sanctioned housing segregation to discrimination in unions, and more.
This week, however, we went to church.
Mila sat down with Robert P. Jones, Ph.D., founder of the Public Religion Research Institute and author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. If you’ve ever wondered how so many American Christians can be so devout while discarding nearly every Christian value they get near, this conversation is for you.
During our interview, Jones noted Dr. Martin Luther King had also noticed and lamented White Christianity’s apathy for civil rights.
“Martin Luther King, for example, in Letter from Birmingham Jail, has a great line,” he told Mila. “This line that he has in there, I think, is so telling, where he is reflecting on how many churches there are in Birmingham for white Christians. I mean, it’s a very religious city, and yet there’s no great uprising on the side of civil rights and standing for equal rights for African-Americans and social justice. He says: ‘Who are these white Christians sitting safely behind their anesthetizing stained-glass windows?’”
In this passage, King asks white religious leaders why their parishioners are not out in the streets demanding justice for all Americans. As he already knew, the answer was that these churches were harboring and sometimes outwardly abetting the belief that whites stand above all other races.
As we reflect on King’s legacy and the yearly outpouring of support from all sectors and political factions of America, we must realize it wasn’t always that way. He was widely hated during his lifetime. The civil rights campaign he championed—now the gold standard for any social change movement—was similarly unpopular. 85% of whites didn’t approve of it, and 57% said sit-ins and other forms of social disobedience were “unhelpful” to the cause of civil rights.
Only after King’s assassination did his approval rating rise—by the mid-1980s, it was 75%. The change may reflect changing attitudes and a posthumous popularity bump, but it also reflects something else: he wasn’t a threat to the white status quo anymore.
Today, a similar scenario is playing out with the Black Lives Matter movement. According to Pew, less than half of white Americans support the BLM movement and its creators. Many of the people who spent last summer demonizing African-Americans for daring to protest rampant police brutality spent this week eulogizing King.
Those who are opposed to BLM also opposed the civil rights movement a generation ago. Before that, they opposed ending segregation. Before that, they held anti-abolitionist views. These are not radical right-wing extremists hell-bent on racial purity; they are everyday white people.
King understood this when he wrote these lines in his Letter: “First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens’ Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
King was right. A majority of whites who will not raise a finger in protest against injustice are more dangerous than a tiny fraction who raise a burning cross. For many whites celebrating King and his legacy this week, the ideology of white supremacy still lives mundanely within them, filtering their actions and their opinions.
And, as Robert Jones pointed out to us this week, many of them learned these values in church.
“Even Though He Is Revered Today, MLK Was Widely Disliked by the American Public When He Was Killed.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 4 Apr. 2018, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/why-martin-luther-king-had-75-percent-disapproval-rating-year-he-died-180968664/.
“From Most Hated to American Hero: The Whitewashing of Martin Luther King Jr.” The Root, 4 Apr. 2018, www.theroot.com/from-most-hated-to-american-hero-the-whitewashing-of-m-1824258876.
Gallup Polling, 1961, Gallup Poll (AIPO) [May, 1961].
JONES, ROBERT P. WHITE TOO LONG: the Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. SIMON & SCHUSTER, 2021.
King, Martin Luther. Letter from the Birmingham Jail. Harper San Francisco, 1994.
Saad, Lydia. “On King Holiday, a Split Review of Civil Rights Progress.” Gallup.com, Gallup, 15 Sept. 2020, news.gallup.com/poll/103828/civil-rights-progress-seen-more.aspx.
Thomas, Deja, and Juliana Menasce Horowitz. “Support for Black Lives Matter Has Decreased since June but Remains Strong among Black Americans.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 22 Oct. 2020, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/09/16/support-for-black-lives-matter-has-decreased-since-june-but-remains-strong-among-black-americans/.