Growing up in northeast Mississippi in the 1960s, I knew next to nothing about Martin Luther King Jr. But in the early 1970s, when I was a student at Mississippi College in Jackson, a professor suggested prescient to a class that we should mark his words: Martin Luther King Jr. would soon be known as a saint.
Today, we honor Dr. King’s memory with a holiday, but how can we also honor his legacy?
The White Church: “The Devil’s Market”
Late in life, as King led the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, Tennessee, he began to expand his message of racial justice to include economic justice. When speaking of economic injustice, King referred to it as “structural racism” – the way the economic system was intentionally constructed to deprive African Americans of the economic rights enjoyed by whites. Yet few know the true history of how the white Christian church was involved in creating structural racism He spoke.
In slave states, Methodist and Baptist ministers asked to share the gospel with slaves. Slaveholders, many of whom were Episcopalians, were afraid of the biblical account of the Exodus about the liberation of the Jews from Pharaoh. So the ministers of agriculture and the wealthy landed slave owners struck a diabolical bargain. Preachers could only preach to slaves if they preached that the Exodus was spiritual; it meant freedom in the gentle by and by, but not “let my people go today.” The preachers agreed, and laws were even passed banning the preaching of the true meaning of the Exodus to slaves.
Slave owners knew the biblical narrative was dangerous for them, for people whose wealth and power rested on the ability to commodify people.
The devil’s market had different results for white evangelicals and for African Americans. Having agreed to be complicit in the pleas of the rich and powerful to ignore the structural injustice their preaching helped create, white evangelicals embraced a gospel focused solely on individual salvation and ignored Jesus’ call to release captives and confront systemic economic injustice.
They had agreed not to preach or even look at the systemic injustice of the powerful; in fact, they were complicit in its design by building the fabric of economic injustice. It also alienated them from true economic solidarity with black people in the face of an economy that commodified both poor whites and blacks to preserve the wealth of the 1%.
For black people, the result of 200 years of bad theology and preaching designed to reduce it was, of course, much worse. The message that freedom was not for them, their own internalized oppression, ran so deep that many older black people refused to register to vote at the start of the Liberty Summer 1963; voting was part of the freedom they were denied.
Robert Moses, architect of the suffrage campaign, had to create a new Sunday School curriculum to teach that Exodus’ call to “let my people go” meant them, now, in the present – not in the soft by and by, contrary to what they had learned. The result was that older African Americans found a new way of thinking about themselves and had the courage to climb the steps of the courthouse and win the right to vote.
King was killed shortly after challenging the structural injustice of the economic system. To honor his memory, we don’t just need to remember what he did. It’s time to continue the work he started, to mount a new campaign against the structural racism embedded in the economy.
MLK’s legacy deserves more
One of the largest and most widespread structural economic injustices, the policy the federal government instituted after repossessing millions of homes during the Depression. FHA loans were denied to blacks because, as a group, they were considered high-risk borrowers. The same policy continued after World War II when black veterans who risked their lives for their country were denied Veterans Administration mortgages.
The upshot is that while white entrepreneurs can often get a second mortgage to fund their startups — because of redlining, which lowers the value of homes in African-American neighborhoods by up to 50% compared to the same home in a white neighborhood – this option is not open to black entrepreneurs who want to start a business. They are also often victims of gentrifying predatory real estate developers who buy the homes of black seniors and resell them for three times as much to white buyers, smashing up long-standing neighborhoods.
As we honor Dr. King’s work, it’s easy to take a day off, post a meme with a quote from one of his speeches. It is popular, in fact, to signal virtue around this holiday. But his legacy deserves better. His legacy deserves our deep and continued work to insist that our great state teach all the story of all residents of Mississippi.
It is in fact not surprising that those in power fight the teaching of our history. The distribution of wealth as they know it and currently enjoy is at stake. Recognizing that the “devil’s bargain” still exists is the first step to breaking free from its clutches.
This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff, or its board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and fact-checking information to [email protected] We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.