We continue with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, “The Church on the Frontier of Racial Tension.” King delivered the address on Aug. 21, 1965. He spoke to an audience of nearly 3,000 inside the Montreat Conference Center’s Anderson Auditorium.
To view last week’s segment, click here.
On Aug. 21, 1965 King said:
All of the theological thinkers who have really grappled with this problem in depth have said this: Segregation is evil. To use the thinking of the late Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, [it is evil] because it substitutes an “I–It” relationship for the “I–Thou” relationship. To use the thinking of St. Thomas Aquinas, segregation is evil because it is based on human laws that are out of harmony with the eternal, natural and moral laws of the universe. Somewhere the great Protestant theologian Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. What is segregation but an existential affirmation of man’s tragic estrangement, his terrible separation, his awful sinfulness? And so when we are true to the nature of the Gospel, we come to see the essential immorality of racial segregation.
We’ve gone a long long way in breaking down the legal barriers. And I am convinced that legal segregation is on its deathbed and the only thing uncertain about that is how costly the segregationists will make the funeral. But in spite of the death of legal segregation, we do have hardcore barriers of de facto segregation that is still with us, and the church must be active in that area, in that particular realm, in breaking down the barriers of segregation at every point.
The second thing that I would like to suggest is the need for the church to get to the ideational root of racial prejudice. As you know racial prejudice is usually based on fear, suspicions and misunderstandings that are usually groundless. Prejudice means, just what it says. It means to prejudge. So often individuals are misled in life. They are improperly taught. So often, they follow the mandates of their surroundings. And so they end up with so many half-truths and … so many stereotypes concerning minority groups, and they really believe them. So often these half-truths have been disseminated by politicians who use them to arouse the fear of their constituency in order to perpetuate themselves in political power.
It seems to me the great challenge facing the church at this time is to lead the popular mind in the right direction, through its channels of religious education. The church can do so much to tell people the truth. To tell them the true aims and the true motives of the Negro. To tell them the truth about human nature.
The church at this time can do so much, and to say to thousands and thousands of people who were misled at this point that the idea of inferior and superior races is a fallacious idea that has been refuted by all of the anthropological sciences. The church can do so much at this point to remind people that the Negro is not a criminal by nature. He may have the highest criminal rate in any community, but criminal responses are environmental and not racial. Poverty, ignorance, social isolation, economic deprivation breed crime, whatever the racial group may be. And it is a torturous logic to use the tragic results of segregation as an argument for the continuation of it.
The church can do so much to lead the popular mind in the motives of the Negro politically. In saying that the Negro is not out to dominate the nation politically. He is not out to bring social disruption. He is merely seeking to bring about a moral balance in society where all of God’s children will be able to have their basic constitutional and God given rights.
The church can do so much to lead people who are caught in the fear of intermarriage, and the constant cries that come out on that point, by saying honestly to men and women that properly speaking, individuals marry and not races.
When a society comes to its full maturity, this question never really comes up because marriage is always an individual matter. And when a society comes to its full maturity, no space will have the laws denying people of different racial groups from the opportunity of marrying if they want to marry because it becomes an individual decision.
But even after saying this, the church can go on to say that the basic aim of the Negro is not to be the white man’s brother-in-law, but to be his brother. This has been demonstrated over and over again in situations where there have been no laws prohibiting individuals of different racial groups from marrying. And so what I’m saying is that somehow and in some way, the church has the responsibility of going to their ideational roots of racial prejudice and telling people the truth on the basic issues that we face in our society today and on the basic questions surrounding the whole race problem.
And at this point the church must go all out to keep dialogue alive. This is one of the great problems facing our society. This is one of the great problems facing our nation. Men so often hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other. No greater tragedy can befall a community than the attempt to live in monologue rather than dialogue.
We will continue with King’s speech next week. In it, he addresses the church’s need to enter “the arena of social action.”