CHICAGO — If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had lived, would he be a welcome guest at these same churches now filled with celebratory praise for a dead civil rights leader?
Would he be invited to stand in their pulpits and preach reform against a backslidden, socially disconnected church that today basks in materialism while the people perish?
Or would King instead be banished for calling into question why — in this city to which he once moved his family in 1966, to bring attention to the housing plight of the poor — politicians and far too many preachers suffer laryngitis on the socioeconomic issues King once railed against?
Would King be embraced upon questioning why millions upon millions of dollars in Chicago alone have been spent building so-called worship centers while poor black and brown neighborhoods remain in economic crisis? Where food deserts, unemployment, drugs and homicide have become intractable tenants, and where remnants of the fires that burned on the city’s West Side soon after King’s assassination still stand as glaringly as the vacant lots of debris, garbage and rubble.
Would his fellow brethren welcome him or shun him — as history shows they did in 1964, when Mayor Richard J. Daley warned local black preachers to not allow the Southern traveling rabble-rouser to speak from their pulpits or else face political repercussions?
The Rev. Dr. Clay Evans did not succumb to Daley’s intimidation and invited Dr. King to preach from his pulpit at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, though historical accounts show that Evans’ punishment was an eight-year delay to build a new church orchestrated by Daley. Evans chose truth, love and community. He chose what was good and right.
Today, which side of history would black Chicago preachers be on?
Amid so many preachers who deify him today while they stood on the sidelines when King was alive, I wonder. Amid the silent complicity of far too many do-nothing bling-bling preachers and politicians in our continued struggle, I wonder.
I wonder whether here, in Bigger Thomas’ town, where Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were gunned down as they slept, where political power still seeks to muzzle the prophetic voice, would black preachers today turn King away rather than risk losing the favor of the current mayor?
Would they label King a troublemaker, an outside agitator come to stir up the status quo in their dear city and their comfy cozy 21st century corporatized — and too often politicized — version of Christianity?
And if King ventured beyond the city’s Magnificent Mile to its insignificant isles on the South and West Sides, where poverty ebbs and flows like the mighty Mississippi River, and where public education remains largely separate and unequal, would he not be mesmerized by the general sense of complacency among the so-called moral leaders?
Would King marvel at the overwhelming volume of churches in the ’hood from corner to corner that stand as potential symbols of hope and light, yet coexist with so much death and darkness?
And if King stood at the South Side corner of Emmett Till Road and King Drive, would he see the fruit of the blood and sacrifice of civil rights icons or simply more evidence of the dream too long deferred, or perhaps worse — a mere semblance of his dream on life support?
If he listened to milquetoast sermons of pie-in-the-sky preachers who do not prescribe a more social and imminent Gospel that seeks to create earthen change agents; if he saw the glitz and glam of a church in a shimmering city, where men, women and children huddle and shiver on the streets in dark corners as outcasts while so many churches stand at bay — fat with avarice and jaundiced with apostasy of love and grace; would King call the church to repentance?
I wonder if King might suggest: “Today the judgment of God is upon the church for its failure to be true to its mission.” That “if the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”
I wonder if King might have the audacity to suggest the church “as a whole has been all too negligent on the question of civil rights.” If he might be so moved as to charge that the church “has too often blessed a status quo that needed to be blasted, and reassured a social order that needed to be reformed.” To assert “the church must acknowledge its guilt, its weak and vacillating witness, its all too frequent failure to obey the call to servanthood.”
Truth is, I don’t wonder. That is exactly what King said decades ago in his book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”
And yet, 50 years since watching, as a little boy, the West Side burn after news of King’s assassination, I can’t help but wonder why after all this time so much remains the same. Even at all these churches that ring today with praise in Dr. King’s name.
And I wonder whether it’s easier to praise a dead icon than to embrace a man who stands as an uncompromised living critic who challenges the status quo and calls upon us all to do more than just dream.
Formerly a national correspondent for the New York Times, John W. Fountain is an award-winning columnist, journalist, professor, publisher and author of True Vine: A Young Black Man’s Journey of Faith, Hope and Clarity; and Dear Dad: Reflections on Fatherhood. His latest book, Soul Cries: In Black & White and Shades of Gray will be released this spring.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation and Community Change.