Soc 461/561

Lecture 18: Religion and Race

May 10, 1999



Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), clergyman & civil rights leader

"Letter from Birmingham Jail." (1963)

In part a rage against "the inert spirits of mannered goodness" and the "shallow understanding" of people of good will as "more frustrating than the absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will."

Several times he pulls from the biblical and civic republican traditions to anchor his moral position. As historian Taylor Branch puts it, "No fewer than five times, he called upon variants of "Constitutional and God-given rights" as the twin footing that grounded his outlook. There was something characteristically American," Branch goes on, "about the notion of divine sanction for democratic values, but King’s own struggle against despair pushed beliefs back to the earliest prophets of monotheism. Centuries before Plato, they introduced a deity that shockingly held kings and peasants to the same moral laws and rejected the forceful authority of state violence as evil. Their concept of equal souls anticipated and lifted up the democratic principle of universally equal votes" (Taylor Branch, Pillar of Fire 1998: 46-49).

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963), historian, sociologist, editor, novelist

"Will the Church Remove the Color Line?" (1931)

Du Bois said, No.

Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Du Bois added that "the problem of the Color Line … is not only the most pressing social question of the modern world: it is an ethical question that confronts every religion and every conscience."

He argued the church will do nothing conclusive or effective to settle these problems.

The white Christian church, instead of moving toward the practice of the religious ethic of brotherliness, has shown far less unity than any other institution. The white Christian church has almost completely acquiesced in the development of an American caste system.

There is no organization more completely split by the color line than the Christian church—the very organization that according to its tenets and beliefs … should draw no line between white and black, "Jew and Gentile," etc.

He describes the Christian church as "mainly a social organization, pathetically timid and human." It is going to stand on the side of wealth and power and then when an ethic of religious brotherliness is finally enacted it’s going to claim credit for it, that is, if it’s still alive.