honor dr King by fulfilling his dream of economic justice

Growing up in northeastern Mississippi in the 1960s, I knew next to nothing about Martin Luther King Jr. But in the early 1970s, while I was a student at Mississippi College in Jackson, a professor of a class presciently suggested that we should remember his words: Martin Luther King Jr. would soon be known as a saint.

Today we honor the memory of Dr. King with a holiday, but how can we also honor his legacy?

The White Church: “The Devil’s Bargain”

Late in his life when King led the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, Tennessee. He began expanding his message from racial justice to economic justice. When speaking about economic injustice, King referred to it as “structural racism” — the way the economic system was purposely designed to deny African Americans the economic rights that white people enjoy. But few know the reality Story of how the white Christian church was involved in the creation of structural racism he talked about.

In slave-owning states, Methodist and Baptist ministers asked to share the gospel with slaves. Slave owners, many of them bishops, were afraid of the Bible’s Exodus narrative of freeing the Jews from Pharaoh. So the ministers of agriculture and the wealthy slaveholders made a devilish deal on land. Preachers could preach to slaves only if they preached that Exodus was spiritual; it gradually meant freedom in the sweet, but not “let my people go today”. The ministers agreed, and laws were even passed forbidding the preaching of the true meaning of Exodus to slaves.

Slave owners knew that the biblical narrative was dangerous for them, for people whose wealth and power depended on the ability to commodify people.

“Preachers could preach to slaves only if they preached that Exodus was spiritual,” writes Rev. Canon Rosa Lee Harden. “It gradually meant freedom in the sweet, but not ‘let my people go today.'” Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

The devil’s deal had different outcomes for white evangelicals and for African Americans. After agreeing to join the demands of the rich and powerful to ignore the structural injustice that their preaching helped create, white evangelicals embraced a gospel that focused only on individual salvation, ignoring Jesus’ call that the Freeing prisoners and confronting 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 shaping it, building the fabric of economic injustice. It also kept them from their real economic solidarity with blacks in the face of an economy that commodified both poor whites and blacks to preserve the wealth of the 1 percent.

For blacks, of course, the result of 200 years of bad theology and preaching designed to hold them down was far worse. The message that freedom was not for them, their own internal oppression, was so ingrained that many older black people refused to register when the campaign began Freedom Summer 1963; Voting was part of the freedom they were denied.

Robert Moses, the architect of the suffrage campaign, had to create a new Sunday School syllabus to teach that Exodus’ call to “let my people go” meant them now in the present – not in sweetness by and by, contrary to what was given to them had been taught. The result was that older African Americans found a new way of thinking about themselves and mustered the courage to walk up the courthouse steps and win the right to vote.

King was soon killed after questioning the structural injustices of the economic system. To honor his memory, we must not only remember what he did. It is time to continue the work he started and launch a new campaign against the structural racism built into the economy.

The MLK legacy deserves more

One of the largest and most widespread structural economic injustices will be redlining, the policy the federal government instituted after it confiscated millions of homes during the Depression. FHA loans were denied to blacks because, as a group, they were viewed as higher-risk borrowers. The same policies continued after World War II, when black veterans who risked their lives for their country were denied Veterans Administration mortgages.

The result is that while white entrepreneurs can often get a second mortgage to fund their startups — because of redlining, which reduces the appraisal of homes in African-American neighborhoods by up to 50% compared to the same home in a white neighborhood — the option is there not open to black entrepreneurs who want to start a business. They are also often victims of predatory gentrifying housing developers who buy the homes of older black people and sell them to white buyers for triple the price, destroying long-standing neighborhoods.

Since we are using the work of Dr. Honoring King, it’s easy to take a day off to post a meme with a quote from one of his speeches. It is indeed popular to make signs of virtue on this holiday. But his legacy deserves more. His legacy deserves our intense, ongoing work to insist that our great state teaches Everyone the history of Everyone of the people of Mississippi.

It’s really no surprise that those in power are fighting the lesson of our history. The distribution of wealth as they know it and from which they currently benefit is at stake. Realizing that “the devil’s business” still exists is the first step in breaking free of its clutches.

This essay by MFP Voices does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its employees, or any director. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and fact check information to [email protected] We welcome diverse perspectives.

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