Williams speaks on the religion of Martin Luther King Jr.

6 mins read

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Classes ran as scheduled, but Swarthmore did not forget about Martin Luther King Day. Last night, Preston Williams, Professor Emeritus of Theology and Contemporary Social Thought at Harvard Divinity School, gave a talk in LPAC entitled “The Theological Perspectives of Martin Luther King Jr.: Framework for Building a Social Movement.” Williams, an ordained Presbyterian Minister, spoke for around 45 minutes on how King’s Christian faith was an important motivator of his great efforts for civil rights for African-Americans and how King’s religious motivations are far different than the motivations of the modern Religious Right.

A large picture of Dr. King displayed on the LPAC cinema screen and an audio recording of one of his speeches greeting arriving students and community members. Associate Dean for Multicultural Affairs Darryl Smaw kicked off the program by singing and playing on the piano a medley of civil rights songs. Smaw followed with a quote by James Baldwin on the hope for a better future. Swarthmore Professor of Religion Yvonne Chireau then introduced Professor Williams.

Williams began by describing the typical observance of Martin Luther King Day. Talk centers on the famous “I have a dream” speech and how well we as a nation have met those lofty ideals. Many white people opine at great length about how well we have done, while other whites and most African-Americans are not so impressed. Neither side is completely correct and all of the debate detracts from truly understanding the Dr. King’s life. King grew up in a loving, Christian home during the Great Depression. His home life taught him the power of love and faith, and the economic realities of the time instilled in him compassion for the poor. Soon, news of Hitler’s activities in Europe combined with discrimination towards African-Americans in the south combined to give King a deep hatred of white supremacy. Soon, he combined his religion with his political beliefs. At 18, he gave a speech criticizing the Daughters of the American Revolution for not allowing a black singer to perform at an event in Washington DC. Williams noted that such speeches played in an important role in King eventually being chosen to lead the Montgomery bus boycott. He did not, as some have said, gain the position by chance.

Through religion, King was able to build a coalition of people who worked against the status quo of discrimination. The moral and religious nature of his cause appealed so social conservatives and the liberty and equality aspects appealed to liberals. Through his faith, observation of the work of Gandhi in India, and life experience, King was able to turn love and suffering into social virtues. After the bus boycotts, he formed the Southern Christian Leadership Foundation. King openly expressed his Christianity through the foundation, but he was working for the betterment of all people and anybody was welcome to join in the effort for civil rights.

Williams pointed out that while nonviolence was paramount to the movement’s success because it kept it on the moral high ground, King was not a pacifist. He called for the US government to intervene, with force if necessary, to ensure the social justice of civil rights. Any effort to create justice had to be morally defensible, but the morality of nonviolence was less important than its effectiveness as a catalyst of change. Williams closed by describing King’s post-civil rights activities and how they showed the full depth of his religious convictions. His outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War and his planned Poor People’s Coalition existed because of their basis in Christian morality. Unfortunately, as Williams pointed out, King was murdered before the Coalition could really get off the ground. A question and answer period followed, with Williams explaining how spirituality was necessary for the movement to succeed and how the democratic party could succeed politically by being more accepting of religion. He also expressed the belief that the lionization of Dr. King is a good thing for the continuing civil rights movement; it may not promote a full understanding, but it can inspire people to get more involved in the continuing struggle.

After extended applause, Smaw returned to the piano and sang “We Shall Overcome”, a traditional civil rights anthem. Many audience members quickly stood up, and halfway through, Smaw requested that everybody else stand up, join hands, and sing. More than 100 voices sang “We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome, someday…” and it was hard not to believe in the truth of the words.

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