Gary Dorrien: Martin Luther King Jr. and the black social gospel

Detail from the book cover of "Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel" by Gary Dorrien.

Though often overlooked by historians, the black social gospel -- a black church variant of the social gospel -- played a major role in the theology and ministry of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, says the seminary professor and author.

When the young Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1954 to pastor the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church after years in college and graduate school, he had no experience as a civil rights activist, says Gary Dorrien.

But what King did have -- and what he would soon put to use in his leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott -- was a deep understanding of the social gospel, especially as it had developed in the black church.

“His lack of any activist experience doesn’t matter, because he is so deeply steeped in the language, the idioms, the goals, and a certain social gospel way of construing Christianity, which made him a stronger social gospel minister than anybody else in Montgomery,” Dorrien said.

In his latest book, “Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel,” Dorrien explores the history of the black social gospel and its impact on King and the civil rights movement. The book is a follow-up to “The New Abolition: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel,” which won the 2017 Grawemeyer Award in Religion.

Related to but distinct from the social gospel movement associated with Walter Rauschenbusch and others in late-19th- and early-20th-century America, the black social gospel grew out of the black church experience in the years following Reconstruction. Over time, though, the black church side of the social gospel story became invisible.

“That’s what I learned in seminary -- that if there was such a thing, it couldn’t have been more than three or four people, whoever they were,” said Dorrien, the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and a professor of religion at Columbia University.

In his two latest books, Dorrien has been unearthing that history and legacy.

“It wasn’t just a handful of people, and they did very important work,” Dorrien said.

Dorrien spoke with Faith & Leadership while at Duke Divinity School earlier this year to present the 2018 Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: First, tell us, what is the black social gospel?

Well, of course, there’s this famous thing called the social gospel. It was [related to] the Third Great Awakening, and it created the ecumenical movement. All the peace and social justice [work] in all the churches came out of the social gospel movement.

Shelves of books have been written about it, and Walter Rauschenbusch and the Federal Council of Churches and all that came from it. It had a big impact on what we later called mainline Protestantism.

But meanwhile, as far back as you can go, there was also a black church version of the social gospel -- except, of course, it was different, because it was in a black church context, and because there was a rampage of lynching going on in this country.

The causes of the white social gospel are historically complex. But there are multiple causes on the black church side as well, and yet something so specific is driving the whole thing. In the beginning, black church ministers were simply asking, “What would a new abolition now be?”

Abolitionism had come and gone. The Civil War had come and gone. Now Reconstruction had come and gone, and now they had to ask, “What would an abolitionist tradition mean now? Because we’re in as terrible a crisis as we ever were. Everything that we dreamed of has already come and gone, and yet look where we are.”

On the black church side, everything revolves around that question. The early founders of this black church tradition of the social gospel all had that question. Some remembered the abolitionist movement, because they were in it, and they lived through the Civil War and Reconstruction, and some were ministers during Reconstruction in the South.

But one way or another, it spoke to that issue and then to all these other issues, too -- economic justice, rights and voting.

It’s a very complicated story, just getting out of the 19th century, much less in the 20th. Everything ended up funneling into a tradition that takes you to Martin Luther King Jr., but I needed two volumes to do it.

Q: What was the relationship between the black social gospel and the white social gospel?

There is a black social gospel tradition in the historic black churches, and then there’s a white social gospel, which doesn’t call itself that, of course. It just calls itself the social gospel; it presumes a white leadership and white space and white issues.

But the white social gospel movement did build something called the Federal Council of Churches. The whole ecumenical movement comes out of the social gospel, and some of the figures in my book were prominent in the council; Reverdy Ransom, Alexander Walters, Adam Clayton Powell Sr. were all players in the Federal Council of Churches.

You do get [some] coming together of these two traditions. Some black social gospel figures did speak to white audiences, unlike most black church pastors, who never had that experience or opportunity.

But they were not treated as partners in this work, and so the black church side of the story became invisible. People thought it didn’t happen. That’s what I learned in seminary -- that if there was such a thing, it couldn’t have been more than three or four people, whoever they were.

In “The New Abolition,” I used the first 15 pages to hammer away at all the conventions about “why there’s no black social gospel” and to say they’re all wrong. It wasn’t just a handful of people, and they did very important work.

Q: What impact did the black social gospel have on Martin Luther King Jr.? What role did it play in his theology and his approach to ministry?

It’s tremendously important, because King had no activist experience when he got to Montgomery. He was 15 when he went to Morehouse College, and from there [he went] to Crozer Seminary, and from there to a doctoral program at Boston University, and then, though he hasn’t finished his dissertation, he’s taking a church in Montgomery.

He’s got nothing but an academic story, and no actual movement experience. But what he does have is that he is steeped in the black social gospel. His father is steeped in it, and his role models are the epitome of it -- Benjamin Mays at Morehouse and J. Pius Barbour at Crozer Seminary. And then, at BU, he is steeped in social gospel language and history, and he has that social gospel ambition when he gets to Montgomery.

His lack of any activist experience doesn’t matter, because he is so deeply steeped in the language, the idioms, the goals, and a certain social gospel way of construing Christianity, which made him a stronger social gospel minister than anybody else in Montgomery.

On day two of the bus boycott, he walks in late to a meeting where E.D. Nixon is admonishing the ministers for not being willing to stand up and make a speech about the boycott. Nixon is giving it to them, saying that nobody was willing to step forward and speak for the movement because that was dangerous and could get you killed in Montgomery.

Then King walks in late, and he doesn’t like being excoriated, and he doesn’t like being called a coward. And history turned in a moment, because the newcomer was willing to risk his life. That night, he gave his speech at the Holt Street Baptist Church about the bus boycott.

So King was very conscious of the social gospel, of the difference it made and where it came from. He could quote Walter Rauschenbusch verbatim. He modeled his ministry on people who talk about a social gospel. They are highly conscious that the social gospel is not just a challenge to society. It’s a challenge to the church, and it is heard as such.

King’s own denomination opposed him. In 1961, he finally breaks away from it, because at its top, the denomination is unrelentingly opposed to the civil rights movement. That was right in front of him -- the battle in his own denomination for a social gospel way of hearing the gospel. He is highly conscious about what it is.

Q: How did that play out across the rest of his life in his ministry? You’ve written that King was angrier and more radical in 1960 than he was in 1955, and more in 1965 than in 1960, and even more so at the end of his life. So even as he grew discouraged, was this still part of his theology and his ministry?

That’s right. King’s [early] speeches were very much a kind of liberalism -- “If we can just get the vote, that will make the difference.”

But King does get more radical with each year, realizing how difficult and how enormous this is going to be. Even his language [becomes] about realizing that white supremacy is actually a structure of power based on privilege that presumes to define what’s normal. Breaking that was the actual endgame, not just a movement against some personal bias called racism or getting the vote.

As that realization sinks in, yes, he gets more radical and angry throughout the 1960s, more each year than the one before, although there was a real break in there. It was in 1963, in the months between his “I Have a Dream” speech [in August] and the church girls getting killed in Birmingham [in September] and President Kennedy being slain [in November].

By the time Kennedy was assassinated, King was saying to everyone around him, “This country is deeply sick, and I don’t expect to see the age of 40.” They hated it when he talked like that. They didn’t want to believe that was going to happen, but that is so much in him from that point on.

The next summer, he gave an interview with Alex Haley, where he talks about the “fury in the Negro,” and by then, he is speaking about something that’s reality for him.

Q: Was his decision to go to Memphis and support the garbage workers’ strike an example of how, even to the end, the social gospel was still very much a part of him?

Very much so. People talk as though his interest in economic justice just emerged at the end. And it did emerge in ordinary public venues all the time at the end.

He had been reticent about that. When he was in an almost purely Southern context in the 1950s, they did think that economic justice was secondary. But certainly, he gets much more explicit, much more emphatic in his last years about how this has to be an economic justice movement or it isn’t anything.

But he also felt like he was hamstrung, that he still can’t quite say what he really means, because it’s threatening. People around him are saying, “Don’t start talking about economic democracy or social democracy -- all that socialist language that you talk about with us. We can’t have that in public. That is a problem for the movement.”

He chafed at that.

Q: How does a renewed understanding of the black social gospel change our understanding of modern Christianity? What does it say to the church today?

I think it is always a challenge in the church. It’s not like this argument prevailed and then the church agreed. That’s one way of telling the story. But people who are in that story sometimes don’t get that, actually, there is this other, much larger church out there that never heard of [the black social gospel] and doesn’t agree with it.

I gave a talk yesterday at Mason Temple Church of God in Christ in Memphis [the location of King's famous speech, "I've Been to the Mountaintop," the night before his assassination], and the last question I got was, “Excuse me. King was a minister. How did he end up getting involved in politics?”

People were guffawing, but I thought, “No. Thank you. This is exactly the question I need, because it does show how it is.”

That question came from someone in a church where this just does not happen. So it’s possible that [the black social gospel] still hasn’t been heard. How could it happen that we have that battle evermore in the churches, much less convey to a larger society that there is a way of hearing the gospel and living it out that looks like this? Millions out there have never even heard of this.

Q: How does a right understanding of the black social gospel change our understanding of the civil rights era?

First, many people talk about the civil rights movement as though religion is secondary, just an undercurrent. There are ways of telling the story, and they got into the public school textbooks and the media, as though it’s basically a political movement.

That is just not true. I mean, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference leaders were ministers. They’re every-week preachers, and the gospel is foundational for them.

King couldn’t have been clearer or more emphatic about what was holding him in his struggle and helping him to go on. It’s not some political goal. It’s the gospel.

So that part is a reminder. It corrects a secularizing way of telling this story, but then it also flips it to another way, with a strong social justice aspect. It’s not this comfortable, nice, church world, “Oh, we’re just trying to be nice” kind of “Churchianity.”

No, that is not it either.

The King that some young people have heard about all their lives is the plaster saint who was a noble idealist. Correcting that has become part of our business as well -- just saying, “No, this is what this movement really was and still is.”

It’s the Moral Mondays movement. It’s Rev. Barber. He’s straight out of this.

Q: What were some of the shortcomings or deficiencies of the black social gospel movement?

Well, the entire SCLC was stocked with ministers -- male ministers. You had to be a male to be a minister in this context. There were women working within the organization who were never treated as equal partners or with the respect that they were due.

My second volume has a long section on Pauli Murray. She spent her whole life having to ask, “What is it this time that’s getting me excluded?” Usually, it’s just, “I’m the female here, and that’s enough,” but there are other factors, too. She’s gay, and she’s Episcopalian, and she’s a lawyer.

In a way, she perfectly distills the limitations of that time.

Q: What about you personally? How did this project come about, and what has it meant to you?

I’ve written a lot about social Christianity; pieces of this story are in various books. I could have written this 20 years ago, but I wasn’t sure that someone like me should.

Even after I got to Union and Columbia, I was still trying to talk one of my doctoral students into taking this on. And I would do that out on the road, too, because I gave talks for years, and I always made the pitch, “You know, someone needs to tell this whole story.”

But friends kept telling me, “Gary, it’s your obsession. You need to suck it up and do it yourself.” So finally, I did.

Q: What called you to this particular subject?

This is where I came in. I was an organizer in my 20s. I didn’t join a church until my late 20s. I didn’t become an academic until I was 35, so I spent years as an organizer for two Latin American solidarity organizations, and I was an Episcopal pastor later, in my early 30s.

I came in through the door of social justice activism. I didn’t grow up in the church. We went to Mass just enough that I was struck by that figure on the crucifix and that there was something terribly significant there about what it means to say that God suffered on a cross for us.

It always hit me that there’s something extraordinary about a religion that would say that.

And then King was assassinated when I was in high school. And that passion narrative that goes with him and this cross story did meld in my thought and feeling when I was in high school.

This is where I came from.