As the former executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization founded by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957, I traveled nearly every Sunday to visit black churches from San Bernardino to San Diego, and everywhere in between. Did I occasionally hear sermons that mirrored the ignorance and bigotry of Wright’s recent comments? Of course I did. But the majority concentrated on messages of sin and salvation, and themes of uplift for communities struggling with single parent households, community violence, drug-peddling street gangs, and endless economic struggles.
Did some of these pastors speak openly and forcefully about their views on race and racism? They did. However, the views expressed fell far short of Pastor Wright’s incendiary themes of racial victimization and conspiracy.
Further, while there are those black churches and pastors who trade in vitriol and victimization, I would argue that these churches and the black religious tradition, as expressed in so-called black liberation theology, are more a product of Black Power ideology than the historic black prophetic ministries that provided the basis for black organizing efforts led by Dr. King and other black pastors.
The church-led efforts for equality of opportunity for black Americans wanted to make America better. This movement fought for America’s excluded black population to join the political, economic and social mainstream of the country.
The kind of “black liberation theology” expressed by Rev. Wright seeks something else. An outgrowth of the Sixties Black Power movement, it glorifies in what it claims are distinct differences inherent in blackness. Religious figures from this tradition willfully perpetuate a hostility and disengagement from government, and maintain a view among congregants that they are victims of, as Wright describes, a society “… controlled by rich, white people.”
How disempowering for young blacks to hear from their minister that you are growing into adulthood in a society that conspires against them, wants to imprison them at every opportunity, and is controlled, to their detriment, by “rich whites.”
As if almost speaking to Rev. Wright, Dr. King once said “At times we begin to talk about racial separation instead of racial integration, feeling that there is no other way out. My only answer is that the problem will never be solved by substituting one tyranny for another. Black supremacy is as dangerous as white supremacy … God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race and in the creation of a society where all men can live together as brothers, where every man will respect the dignity and the worth of human personality.”
Calling Reverend Wright … are you listening?
Joe R. Hicks is a Los Angeles-based writer.