The Christian Approach to Social Injustice
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Selma campaign for voting rights led by Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This effort, capped by a 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, played a pivotal role in the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
After the Civil War, slavery was abolished and the right of black people to vote was officially guaranteed by the 13th and 15th Amendments respectively. Federal civil rights laws were also enacted during the Reconstruction period. However, many black citizens were effectively disenfranchised because officials largely refused to allow them to register. This not only denied them the vote, it excluded them from serving on juries, denying them justice in the courts as well.
For many decades, many good people had worked long and hard for civil rights, for justice, and for basic human dignity. But for many black people, little changed in their daily lives – and little changed with respect to racist attitudes in much of the greater society – until Dr. King assumed leadership of this struggle. It was thanks to his persistent and convincing voice that America began to change.
Why did the civil rights movement succeed under Dr. King’s leadership? How is it that his dream began to be realized?
“Before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the Gospel,” Dr. King explained. “This was my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment. You know, actually all that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry” (Sermon of August 27, 1967). His Christian faith is what animated his life and kept him going day after day in the face of numerous challenges and hardships, including opposition from all quarters, death threats, bombings of his home, and other violence.
Under the leadership of this man of great faith, the civil rights movement was an expression of the Christian faith in action. Dr. King succeeded for the same reason that early Christianity succeeded in transforming western civilization. And both provide valuable lessons as we face today’s challenges to the dignity of human life.
The aim of the movement, Dr. King said at the end of the march from Selma to Montgomery, was “a society of justice where none would [prey] upon the weakness of others . . . a society of brotherhood where every man would respect the dignity and worth of human personality” (Address of March 25, 1965). He said this after the first attempted march ended with the marchers being viciously attacked by state troopers on March 7, 1965, a day nicknamed “Bloody Sunday.”
The brutality was covered on national television, and when Dr. King called on religious leaders from across the country to join the marchers, hundreds of people of all faiths and all races came to Selma in solidarity. But even more amazing, throughout his ministry, Dr. King did not stop at seeking solidarity with those who agreed with him. He wanted those who opposed him, those who oppressed him, to eventually come together in solidarity as well.
In the face of violence, instead of offering hate for hate, instead of militant revolution, as some urged, Dr. King used the strength of love, believing that there is some spark of good in even the worst oppressor and that love has within it a redemptive power that eventually transforms individuals (Sermon of November 17, 1957). Similarly today, some people think we should use brute strength to try to change the structures of the world, but that is not our way. We are called to loving, patient persuasion rather than imposition by force. The Lord’s will is that we love one another, even those who hate and persecute us, so as to make friends of adversaries and renew the world.
Hearing these words of Jesus, Dr. King sought reconciliation with the instigators of violence and racial oppression, appealing to conscience to transform hearts. History shows that hearts were indeed changed as a culture where racism was rampant began to embrace the social harmony that this man of God worked for.
We have made great strides in many ways since then, but we must also admit that there is work yet to be done for the fundamental dignity of the human person to be respected everywhere. So it is the task of each of us to continue the march, to make the effort, to recommit to manifest in our world the love of Christ. In this way we can change hearts and, ultimately, the world.