(OPINION) In the winter of 1967, Martin Luther King Jr., along with his wife, Coretta, and two friends, isolated himself in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, to write the first draft of his book: “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?”
From January to February of that year, King isolated himself with no telephone to write a book that offered painful realities about race relations, the Supreme Court and Black Americans 16 months before his assassination.
“In this light, we are now able to see why the Supreme Court decisions, on school desegregation, which we described at the time as historic, have not made history. After twelve years, barely 12 percent of school integration existed in the whole South, and in the Deep South the figure hardly reached 2 percent. And even these few schools were in many cases integrated only with a handful of Negroes.”
Roughly 56 years later, the U.S. Supreme Court updated its interpretation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment that King, his older sister Christine King Farris and so many others fought for their entire lives.
On Aug. 16, 1967, in Atlanta during his annual report to the 11th Convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King entitled his speech, “Where Do We Go From Here?” and thus the question I have for ministers, Black and White today:
“I’m concerned about a better world. I’m concerned about justice; I’m concerned about brotherhood; I’m concerned about truth. (That’s right) And when one is concerned about that, he can never advocate violence.
“And I say to you, I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems. (Yes) And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. (No) And I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I’m talking about strong, demanding love. (Yes)
“For I have seen too much hate. (Yes) I’ve seen too much hate on the faces of sheriffs in the South. (Yeah) I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizens Councilors in the South to want to hate, myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities, and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. (Yes, That’s right) I have decided to love.”
Many scholars say the book, “Where Do We Go from Here?” was King’s analysis of race relations in America in 1967, but more than 50 years later, how much has changed?
King wrote, “With Selma and the Voting Rights Act one phase of development in the civil rights revolution came to an end,” adding that the next phase of the civil rights movement would be calls for better jobs, decent housing and an education equal to that of White people.
But in the last decade, the rights King fought hard for, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, have been gutted line by line.
The Rev. Barbara Williams Skinner, coordinator of Faith United to Save Democracy, said “Dr. King’s book ‘Community or Chaos’ is even more relevant today than it was when he wrote it. The Supreme Court has thrown the nation and those of us who have worked for justice in our country into utter chaos.”
Skinner said going forward, where African American pastors are today “is the same place it left Dr. King and clergy of his day, and that is developing strategies to maximize the vote to get out of office those who foment confusion and chaos and put into office those who are advancing community.”
In excerpts from the letter from the Birmingham Jail on April 16, 1963, King expressed a sense of disappointment in terms of White religious leaders in Alabama and the South:
“I felt that the white ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.
“Despite my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.”
So the question remains unanswered. In the wake of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, what are faith leaders saying when it comes to dealing with the question, “Where do we go from here: community or chaos?”
“We can’t answer ‘Where do we go from here?’ until we know where are,” said Rev. Gerald Durley, a civil rights activist and retired pastor of Atlanta’s Providence Baptist Church. ”If you want to know where we are right now, go to Walmart and see where we are as a people. You see a young lady trying to make ends meet as a cashier and a female shopper cursing each other out.”
In terms of the civil rights movement, Durley said, “Christine King Farris constituted stability through all of the ups and downs of the King family — her mother was killed playing the organ, her brother died in the swimming pool and her brother was assassinated.”
The Rev. Grainger Browning, pastor of the Ebenezer African Methodist Church in Fort Washington, Maryland, said in terms of going forward, “During the height of the financial crisis during the Bush administration, Rev. Jesse Jackson talked about all of this: He said if we don’t vote, the Supreme Court will take away all of the rights we have, including affirmative action. His point was the courts are often more powerful than the legislatures.
“Malcolm X said, I believe it was in ‘The Ballot or the Bullet,’ ‘It is not the political parties; it is the system,’” Browning said. “Until we realize who is in power, the system remains the same. The fundamental problem we face in America is the system.
“The evangelicals didn’t like Trump, but they wanted a Supreme Court nominee and they wanted to end abortion,” Browning said. “They were choosing a candidate who supported their agenda. The point is this is our agenda, and what will you do if you become president?”
In another ruling on June 30, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of a Christian designer who objects to creating custom websites for same-sex couples planning their wedding, saying the state of Colorado would violate the free-speech rights of Lorie Smith by requiring her to design such a website.
The court’s decision broke along political lines. Chief Justice John Roberts and associate justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett joined Neil Gorsuch in the majority, while associate justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson cast dissenting votes.
The head of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission applauded the decision in a statement:
“If the government can compel an individual to speak a certain way or create certain things, that’s not freedom — it’s subjugation,” ERLC president Brent Leatherwood said. “And that is precisely what the state of Colorado wanted.
The high court ruling shows how faith leaders are very divided today.
Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., released a statement after the Supreme Court blocked President Biden’s plan to cancel $10,000 of student loans for Americans earning under $125,000 and cancel $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients.
“This ruling is devastating news for millions of borrowers,” said Warnock, who is pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. “The Supreme Court’s decision to usurp the President’s executive authority to provide meaningful debt relief isn’t just bad for the everyday, hardworking Georgians who are being held back financially by crippling debt, but it is also terrible for our entire economy and sets a dangerous precedent that binds the hands of the elected executive from taking action that reflects the will of the people.”
The Rev. Jamal Bryant, pastor of the New Birth Baptist Church in Atlanta, said, “Power concedes nothing but by demand. We have to be mindful that this Supreme Court has already shown that it lacks integrity. The Supreme Court has got to be under review.”
In terms of going forward, Bryant said, “We are going back to Washington, Rev. Sharpton, Martin Luther King and myself, for the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, and we are bringing buses from Atlanta to sound the alarm.”