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Martin Luther King, Jr. in Sociological Context


A paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, Atlanta, Georgia, August 15, 2003. 

by Alton B. Pollard, III
Director, The Program of Black Church Studies and
Associate Professor of Religion and Culture
Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA Contact information: abpolla@emory.edu or 404-727-4180/4196.  



I am appreciative of Lina Molokotos Liederman and others for the invitation to address members of the annual meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion.  It is especially good to be asked to reflect with you on the social meaning and moral agency of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as you gather here in Atlanta over the next few days.  My presentation is in two parts, beginning with an overview of contemporary Atlanta followed by the relevance of Martin Luther King, Jr. for this post-civil rights city and world.

Atlanta is frequently portrayed in today’s media as the Mecca of African America, an urban enclave of unparalleled power, prosperity and opportunity for America’s denizens of African descent.  Heralded as one of the nation’s leading municipalities, African Americans dominate city government from the mayor (who also is female) and chief of the police and the fire departments to the superintendent of schools.  African Americans have a controlling interest on both the Atlanta City Council and the adjacent Fulton County Commission.  An African American woman also serves as president of the Fulton County Board of Education.  A black majority represents the city in the Georgia general Assembly, and in the last decade, African Americans have been victorious in elections to statewide offices for the first time.  While other leading urban centers like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Oakland are no longer led by black mayors, Atlanta’s majority black electorate has successfully returned African Americans to the mayoral seat for thirty years.  Meanwhile, the city of Atlanta and the twenty-one county metropolitan region (and to a lesser extent the entire state of Georgia) continue to experience a steady upturn in population influx, fueled by favorable publicity, Sun Belt location, reportedly progressive politics, and exuberant post-Olympic (1996) economic growth.

Hailed fifty years ago by white moderate and segregationist-era Mayor William Hartsfield as “the city too busy to hate,” Atlanta has gone on to become a leading “new south city” and national showcase of black social and political power.  The election of Maynard Jackson as the first African American mayor in 1973 ushered in a hopeful new era for racial diversity in the city’s political economy.  Despite a series of successful initiatives to secure gainful employment for blacks in municipal service, as well as through workforce requirements in contracting, Jackson’s efforts to establish comparable opportunities in the private sector were consistently and steadfastly opposed by the white business community.  Furthermore, the city’s own hiring policies, intentionally or not tended to favor white-collar workers from the smaller black middle class.  Thanks to the injurious legacy of segregation the skills and educational levels of many blacks in Atlanta simply did not fit the jobs. up

Three decades later, substantive race-related problems stemming from a long history of white racial hegemony, including modern means of race-relations management, continue to adversely affect the city’s black population.  Fortune 500 companies, leading citadels of higher learning, major league sports franchises, a presidential library, fine arts and culture proliferate in Atlanta, the South’s business and communications capital.  Significant numbers of black Atlantans have gained entry into the mainstream, yet the enduring number of racial discrimination lawsuits also strongly suggests that the black middle class continues to find the right to equal access to advancement and promotion in the workplace an elusive reality.  Even larger numbers of the black community remain trapped behind high poverty levels and low expectations in terms of quality of life and substantive change.  For instance, in the city of Atlanta proper, where some 13 percent of the statistical metropolitan Atlanta population resides is concentrated 78 percent of the region’s people who live below the poverty line.  Atlanta’s poverty rate is the fifth highest among the nation’s urban centers, and exceeded only by Detroit, Cleveland, Miami, and New Orleans.  That serious problems yet remain in the post-civil rights era owes to a litany of factors – the white elite’s monopolization of capital, long-inadequate schools, lack of job training and education, manufacturing jobs lost to the suburbs and exurbs, suburban government’s curtailment of public transportation, past and present discrimination in housing and employment, the shortcomings of public agencies, and the migration of the black middle class to the suburbs (particularly south Fulton and south Dekalb Counties).  This is one social researcher’s profile of Atlanta, “the cradle of the civil rights movement,” circa 2003.[i]  This is Atlanta, Georgia, in the years since the death of Martin Luther King. Jr. thirty-five years ago.

It is important to contextualize King in this way, to properly situate him, to immerse him in the currents of contemporaneity, and to remind us that the sense of community so many experienced and hoped for in the civil rights movement was never completed, in part because King was so idealized, modified, marketed, and mythologized until the deeper implications of the movement were dismissed.  Today we have yet to come to terms with either the sacred or societal imperative to re-humanize our cities, our nation, and our souls.  Still, somehow, something of the message and meaning of King inspires and persists. 

The original Ebenezer Baptist Church, the new Ebenezer Baptist Church, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, and other sites have become hallowed ground for pilgrims and tourists alike.  Located along Auburn Avenue or “Sweet Auburn” as the street is popularly known, Ebenezer Baptist Church is venerated as the space where the ministry of MLK, Jr. began.  Its pulpit is revered as the place from which generations of prophets preached, pastored and led – MLK, Jr., his father, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. (or “Daddy King” as he was affectionately known), and his maternal grandfather, the Rev. Alfred Daniel (A.D.) Williams before him.  Ebenezer is the extended family, where generations of parishioners loved, cared and admired King.  It is the birthplace of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  It is where the world bid farewell to MLK, Jr. and where six years after King’s assassination his own mother was slain at worship.  It is the symbolic beginning of the magnificent black-led freedom struggle of a generation and more ago.  In 1957, Fortune Magazine named Auburn Avenue and its inhabitants “the richest Negro Street in the world.”  But more than that, it was a living laboratory for many of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dreams.  Today, Ebenezer Baptist Church, the King Center and all of Sweet Auburn struggle to re-create that extraordinary moment of purpose from an exceptional moment in United States social history when a spiritually enabling, politically progressive and interracial movement not only seemed altogether possible but absolutely desired by a nation.up

It was on Auburn Avenue and the thoroughfares of black Atlanta that MLK was first prompted to think about Christianity’s relationship to racial justice and to his own nascent sense of identity.  Early on in his life, long before civil rights fame, long before the radical changes that occurred even later in his life, King was already being challenged by the example set by his family, the teachings of the Black Church and the hope of his community in a world beyond skin color, bigotry, and racism.  It was not by accident that in the midst of a decidedly unchristian white Christian world the civil rights organization King would later lead was named the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and whose motto and task was “To redeem the soul of America.”  The local affiliate chapters of SCLC constituted veritable Christian communities under the leadership of black clergy, nurtured by prayers and spirituals, and committed to sacramental forms of activism in the nonviolent legacy of Jesus of Nazareth, the Black Church, Mahatma Gandhi and others.  Nor was it coincidence that King expressed his vision for a racially just and inclusive America with the words “beloved community.”

In the context of mid-twentieth century America, King’s beloved community at minimum represented the beauty of racial diversity, the beginnings of a new humanity, and the antithesis of white supremacy.  Consonant with the biblical language of the reign or kingdom of God, more inclusively described today as the commonwealth or kin-dom of God, Martin’s beloved community did not distinguish between church and society or sacred and secular in its modalities.  Freedom from slavery, the end of segregation, dignity in the face of discrimination, community beyond colonialism, the kinship of all peoples, and our kinship to God were the hallmarks by which all other aspects of life were evaluated and embraced.  All of life is interrelated.  Declared King, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”[ii]  The fate of the United States and indeed the entire world, King believed, hinged on the degree to which all its people were acknowledged, accepted, and affirmed.

In the latter years of his ministry, King’s vision of what was required for community building and formation shifted from the mere integration of black people into existing societal structures to a more radical and systemic transformation of society.  The historic March on Washington that took place forty years ago on August 23, 1963, and King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech were only the beginning of his march toward destiny.  King’s early dream of equal opportunity, which he believed could be accomplished by way of moral appeal to the conscience of white America, underwent profound challenge, resistance and critique.  In the last four and a half years of his life King moved beyond the easy accolades and adulation, so often accorded him even to this day, and into the perilous and luminous darkness.  Beleaguered by the bombing of four little girls in a Birmingham church, blistered by the fires of rebellion in the urban north, hard-pressed by the militant youthful demands for black power, excoriated for daring to take a stand in solidarity with the poor and the victimized, at home and abroad, it became clear to him that the securing of civil rights victories would not alleviate the devastation of poverty or the will to quarantine so resident in the human spirit.up

This stance of the latter–day King was not a refutation of older civil rights themes; he remained faithful to the African American tradition of moral suasion, the Biblical passion for love and justice, and the disciplines of revolutionary non-violence.  But the limits that the nation – and sometimes his own communities of origins and faith had set for him – could no longer contain the prophetic vision.  His once singular and near-myopic focus on civil rights integration, with its idyllic call for African Americans to move uncritically into the mainstream, had metamorphosed into a profound and unparalleled identification with the poor and the oppressed – who were mainly people of color – wherever they were.  King’s commitment grew clearer and more comprehensive.  Fundamental systemic change became the compelling objective:

For years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of the society, a little change here, a little change there.  Now I feel quite differently.  I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.[iii]

And again:

We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s market place.  But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring….  When you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, “Who owns the oil?”  You begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?”[iv]

The “revolution of values” and “restructuring” that King had begun to envision for the United States centered on three fundamental issues: economics, human rights, and peace.  As the boundless dimensions of human need became excruciatingly clear, his freedom movement intensified to include the international and largely Two-Thirds world poor.  Much to the dismay of his associates and the U.S. government, King was pressing beyond the older, traditional understandings of integration (equality of opportunity for all) to advocating a kind of cultural and political pluralism (equality of conditions for all).  For this justice-obsessed man the “more excellent way” was multiracial, ecumenical, global, and transformative.  The challenge was to U.S. complicity in Vietnam, Central and South America, Asia, South Africa, and more.  As theologian James Cone notes, by life’s end King had made the crucial and, no doubt, fatal distinction between being “integrated out of power” and being integrated into power.”[v]  For African Americans this meant the full affirmation of black identity and heritage within the context of U.S. citizenry; and for every American, the call to a revolutionary transformation of the entire nation, inclusive of its racial and other societally constructed forms of preferment (and if King were alive today I believe that he would have come to terms with sexism and seek to atone for his own indiscretions).  Herein, King believed, lay the seeds for global transformation – and the beginning of the beloved community. up

King would not live to see his fortieth birthday.  Early on Thursday evening, April 4, 1968, he was felled by a single metal-jacketed bullet from a madman’s gun.  The best way for us to pay tribute to King is to seek to bear witness to the utter dignity, inherent worth, and humanity of us all until the dream of a fair criminal justice system, economic and environmental justice, gender equity and unity between diverse communities, full political participation and peace becomes a living reality, in our time, around the world, and for generations to come.  May your visit to the Martin Luther King, Jr. historic site, ground zero of the civil rights movement, deepen your resolve, replenish your spirit, renew your strength, and serve as a resounding testament of hope.


[i] For more on this subject see my forthcoming essay, “Atlanta: Black Churches and the Politics of Affirmative Action,” in Black Churches and Civic Engagement in American Cities.  R. Drew Smith, ed. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, Spring 2004).

[ii] Martin Luther King, Jr., Trumpet of Conscience (New York: HarperCollins, 1989), chapter 5.

[iii] Cited in James Cone, Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991), p. 257.

[iv] Martin Luther King, Jr., August 16, 1967 presidential address to SCLC, reprinted in The Rhetoric of Black Power, ed. Wayne L. Brockriede and Robert L. Scott (New York: 1971), pp. 161-62.

[v] See Cone, Martin & Malcolm & America. up




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