October 31, 2023

What Was the Role of Religion in The Civil Rights Movement?

Jonathan Eig, American journalist, biographer, and author of ‘King: A Life,’ joins Eboo to discuss the role of religion in the civil rights movement.

In This Episode...

Jonathan Eig, an American journalist, and biographer, gives us a deeper insight into MLK Jr.’s life as a civil rights activist and the lessons we can still learn from his work about the role of religion in activism. He also discusses MLK’s hopes for our nation and why young people today are skeptical of the Church. 

About Jonathan Eig

Jonathan Eig is the bestselling author of six books, including his most recent King: A Life, which The New York Times hailed as a “monumental” new biography of Martin Luther King Jr., and is a National Book Award nominee. 

Jonathan’s previous book, Ali: A Life, won a 2018 PEN America Literary Award and was a Mark Lynton History Prize finalist. His works have been translated into more than a dozen languages. He served as consulting producer for the PBS series “Muhammad Ali,” directed by Ken Burns. The Esquire magazine named Ali: A Life one of the 25 most excellent biographies of all time. Joyce Carol Oates called it “an epic of a biography” that “reads like a novel.” His books have been listed among the best of the year by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal 

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What Was the Role of Religion in The Civil Rights Movement?


Eboo Patel: This is the Interfaith America Podcast, and I’m Eboo Patel. 


Welcome to season two of Interfaith America with Eboo Patel. I’m your host, Eboo Patel. This season I’m excited to have conversations about religious diversity and its intersection with a number of sectors in American life, healthcare, media, politics, law, political philosophy. The overarching focus, of course, is how religious diversity plays a central role in shaping our democracy, our society, our individual lives. At Interfaith America, we spend a lot of time thinking about the interfaith heroes that paved the path for the work we do with this organization. 

I wish I could ask them questions about their lives, what they were thinking during pivotal moments, what they would think of the world today. Obviously, many of these people have passed on, but they speak through folk like journalist and New York Times bestselling author Jonathan Eig. John has written about important and intriguing figures like Lou Gehrig, Al Capone, Jackie Robinson, and my favorite Muhammad Ali. 

His most recent book is about the person I think is the most important interfaith hero in American history. That would of course be the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the book is called King: A Life. As we continue our exploration into how faith informs the lives of those outside of conventional church or synagogue or mosque work, I speak with John about Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. and the role that their respective faiths played in their lives and in their work. 

First, I wanted to ask John about the role that his own faith played in writing books about people who were from other faiths. John Eig, it is such an honor and a pleasure to have you here with me in person at the Interfaith America Recording Studios. It occurs to me that you are the biographer of easily the most important Black American Christian of the 20th century in Martin Luther King Jr. and arguably the most important Black American Muslim of the 20th century in Muhammad Ali, and you’re a white Jewish guy? 

[00:02:27] John Eig: [laughs] Yes. 

[00:02:28] Eboo: The New York Times asked you about what it was like to be a white guy writing biographies of Black Americans. An interesting enough question, but this is an organization called Interfaith America, and so the question I want to ask you is, is the religious dimension, what is it like to be Jewish writing about these massive Christian and Muslim figures? 

[00:02:49] John: Yes, my friends and my family want to know why I haven’t written about any Jews, and maybe it’s because I’m not as interested in the stuff I already know, and I think being Jewish and being raised somewhat religious but becoming more religious as I get older makes me appreciate the spirituality of all religions and I’m drawn to people of faith for sure. Muhammad Ali’s faith was really what made him Muhammad Ali and not just a boxer. 

The reason he deserved a big biography was because of his faith, not because of his boxing. Christianity is absolutely the core ingredient in why Martin Luther King Jr. is Martin Luther King Jr. Without Christianity, without this deep faith that he’s got in God, there’s no way he does any of the things he does, so I just think it’s essential to who I am and it’s essential to who these characters are, and I’m not as interested in writing about people who are in it for the money or in it for power. I’m interested in people who are trying to live their lives in a spiritual way. 

[00:03:47] Eboo: Yes. You let Walter Isaacson do the Elon Musk biography, right? 

[00:03:50] John: Yes. You couldn’t pay me enough money to do that. 

[00:03:51] Eboo: Were you aware of the centrality of Ali’s faith and King’s faith before beginning the projects? Was that part of the attraction for writing about them even before the deep dive? 

[00:04:05] John: I was vaguely aware. I knew it was important, but I didn’t know how important, and part of why I love my work is that I get to dive in and explore and figure out what really made these guys go. Dick Gregory, when I interviewed him, said to me, especially as a white guy, I think he called me a white boy, if you’re going to try to write a book about Muhammad Ali, you need to understand what made him think that he could be great. What made a Black boy growing up the same age as Emmett Till think that he could speak back to white power and live and that challenge? 

What made Martin Luther King think that he could lead a movement to change American society, to try to rid it of its most of its greatest sin, what made him, what gave him the chutzpah as my people would say, and it goes back to faith for both of them, and I think that is a big part of why I find them endlessly fascinating.

[00:05:00] Eboo: A friend of mine as I was starting this organization pointed out, said in high school we learn about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but we don’t learn about Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. 

That began my process of searching for the Interfaith King. I thought that Ava DuVernay actually did a very good job of this in the film Selma. When King is despondent at midnight, he calls Mahalia Jackson and says, “Sing me the voice of the Lord.” When the police with truncheons are arrayed in front of him on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, he falls to his knees, and then they go to Brown Chapel like it is a film about the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. 

Are there one or two details that you discovered through your research that may or may not be in the book about King’s faith that just moved you even though they were not the kind of thing you would’ve learned about in high school or college? 

[00:05:53] John: Without a doubt, and I agree with you completely that we’re not as comfortable talking about his Christianity. We’re not as comfortable talking about his radical Christianity in particular. We’ve softened him to the point that he wouldn’t recognize himself in this vision that we’ve created, I have a dream. So much of what he did was driven by his faith, and when he had doubts, he turned to that every time. 

The earliest example is when his house was bombed and he was just starting out really leading the Montgomery bus boycott, and he didn’t have to keep going. He didn’t have to be the leader. He could have stepped back at that point just for the safety of his family. His father who was a very religious man, also Reverend Martin Luther King Sr., came to Montgomery and said, “You got to stop. You don’t have to be the leader, you can lead your church, you can be involved, but you’re putting yourself in danger and you’re risking your family’s life.” 

King said he really wrestled with it and he was walking around the house in the middle of the night, his wife and baby were sleeping, and he sat down at the table and heard the voice of God telling him, “Go on. This is what you’re called to do.” I found it in some archives another example where he said, yet again, a second time, he heard the voice of God speak to him. As his career goes along, over and over, there are moments where he could pull back where his life’s in danger, where he’s being criticized, where he feels like he’s not really getting through to people anymore, but he can’t turn back because he believes in God and he believes that this is what the Bible tells him to do. 

[00:07:21] Eboo: It’s remarkable, and one of the threads in your book, which I think is so powerful is, not only are there like the obvious forces against him, the explicit forces of white supremacy in the form of police dogs and fire hoses and truncheons, but J. Edgar Hoover is trying to get him to commit suicide. That’s wild. J. Edgar Hoover knows that he can’t engage him in a more overt way, so he is basically engaging in this blackmail campaign, threatening to expose King’s infidelities and trying to get him to commit suicide and King perseveres. 

As you demonstrate, there’s so much of that is about his Christian faith. I have to ask you, John, you’re a Jewish guy writing about Ali and now King, and actually Jews play a hugely important in shaping role in who King is. Abraham Joshua Heschel, for example, they meet right here in Chicago, 1963, the Chicago Conference on Religion and Race. As you’re researching and writing this book, how is your Jewish faith changing as you are learning about King’s Christian faith and also like his openness to influences from other faiths? Which we’ll get into in more detail in a minute. 

[00:08:35] John: There’s a lot there in that question. It was interesting because I was speaking at a bookstore last week in Pennsylvania and somebody asked the question, why isn’t there more Judaism in this book? Why don’t I pay more attention to the rabbis who influenced King? Why isn’t there more on Heschel in this book? I was stopped by that question. I wondered if maybe I subconsciously downplayed the contributions because I didn’t want to be accused of favoring the Jews or giving them more credit than they deserved in the Civil Rights movement. 

They certainly deserved a lot of credit, and King had many great close friends and advisors in the Jewish community, but here was somebody saying that I had perhaps underplayed the contribution of Jews. Again, I think of myself as a journalist and my job here is to be fair, is to be anonymous. I don’t want anybody to read this and go, well, obviously there’s this Jewish influence coming through again, but my influence as a believer in God is all over the book and my faith. I do a weekly podcast with my rabbi, and I’ve been doing it for years now, three or four years, every week we get on the phone and talk about this week’s Torah portion. 

In my notebooks in which I’m interviewing King’s friends, you’ll see every week in those notebooks the page where I’m taking notes on my conversation with the rabbi. These things are going through my head and through my life at the same time. I’m literally studying with my rabbi and I’m studying with Reverend James Lawson and Reverend Bernard Lafayette. I’m calling and speaking to them and asking them questions about King and King’s faith as I’m exploring my own Jewish faith. I see them as being woven. Just as they’re woven through my notebooks. 

[00:10:08] Eboo: There’s a podcast to be done here, chasing King and reading Moses together. I have to say, as I’m flipping through the book yesterday, there’s only three references to Heschel. There is not a reference to the Chicago Conference on Religion and Race where they meet. There is not a reference to Heschel and Selma. It’s not for me to say whether there’s enough or not. There’s plenty written about King and Heschel elsewhere. It’s almost a postcard relationship in archetypal American history. So many people know it. It is interesting that it does not appear in significant ways in your own book. 

[00:10:40] John: It’s hard. Part of the thing with a book like this is that I have to leave out a lot. I want my focus to be on King. I want you to feel what he’s going through. A lot of stuff that might be important has to be cut away because I have to make difficult choices. I also have to say that in reading King’s own words in reading the interviews with him, he absolutely valued and treasured his Jewish allies. I don’t see where they were necessarily a giant philosophical influence on him in the same way that, say, Niebuhr or Gandhi was, I just don’t see it. 

[00:11:15] Eboo: That’s interesting. Let’s widen the category here to interfaith influences in general, which is, of course, what we do here at Interfaith America. One of the stories that I love the way you tell it in this book is King is a seminary student. Here’s this prince of the Black Baptist church from the south going to Crosier Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, which is a largely white seminary. He has a white girlfriend, which I didn’t know about. Very interesting. Thank you for bringing that interesting detail to light. 

He goes to hear Mordecai Johnson speak about Christian love in Philadelphia in 1950. The example that Mordecai Johnson gives of Christian love is Mahatma Gandhi. You detail how it dramatically expands King’s understanding of agape. It is not like, “Oh, Gandhi is an interesting political figure.” Not just an interesting movement strategist. It’s not just a methodology that King is learning in non-violence. It is a new definition of agape, of Christian love. I’m curious, how important to King’s Christianity is the Gandhi an influence? 

[00:12:25] John: That’s a great question. It’s hard to say except that we know that Gandhi is a massive influence on his worldview, on his approach to faith as opposed to his approach to civil rights. He sees Gandhi as a template for much of what he’s doing. One of the things Mordecai Johnson says is that when he met Gandhi, Gandhi said that perhaps the principles of non-violence will finally find their true success in America with the American Negro. I think those words must have resonated with King because he’s trying to prove that Gandhi might have been right. 

[00:13:01] Eboo: Interesting tangent here. I think it’s Bayard Rustin who probably most forcefully brings Gandhi. I think organizes the trip to India. Part of what’s fascinating about King is here are all of these other giants of the Black church and Black civil rights. Bayard Rustin is a giant. Ralph Abernathy becomes a giant. Mordecai Johnson is a giant. Benjamin Mays is a giant. For the most part, they’re pointing to King as the guy. That’s fascinating. In Montgomery, he’s 26 years old. What do you make of that? Is this like a Bilbo Baggins thing and people just know? 

[00:13:39] John: He has this magic about him, this charisma, this sense of calm. Even though he’s so young and he’s still learning. Bayard Rustin literally races down to Montgomery to try to talk to him about Gandhi and how Gandhism can help in Montgomery. King has already cemented this excitement, this enthusiasm. People want to follow him. It begins with really just one speech. 

On December 5th, 1955, he has 10, 20 minutes to prepare for the biggest address of his life in front of thousands of people who are waiting to hear, what are we going to do? Are we going to boycott the buses? How long are we going to boycott? They’ve never heard King speak before. In that moment, he really finds his message. It’s a combination of things that seem so irrefutable that you cannot find a way to argue with him. 

He’s calling on the Constitution and the Bible and saying, if these things are true, then we must be right in what we’re attempting to do here. It just resonates with people, not just the Black people who were in the church that day. It resonates with the news media, it resonates with ministers all over the country. It resonates with white northern politicians because he’s speaking about bedrock principles. He’s saying, we’re not here to attack America. We’re here to join America. We’re here to unite all of these different beliefs, and we want to make America democracy better. 

[00:15:05] Eboo: Let’s spend a minute on this. I’m going to come back to the interfaith part of it. You are writing both in the book and in the Wall Street Journal essay about that moment at the Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery. It’s not a King’s own church. It’s not a Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. It’s that Holt Street Church. The fact that he has 10 or 20 minutes to prepare for this major address that the senior Black leaders, E. D. Nixon and others have singled out this guy. 

We’re like, “Really?” It’s like a Bilbo Baggins moment. It’s like Gandalf shows up at the door and hands you the ring and says you’re the guy. You’re 26 years old. I don’t even know if he’s finished his doctorate at this point. He might still be writing. The thing that I want to pause on is King says, if we are wrong, then the Bible is wrong. If we are wrong, then the Constitution is wrong. 

The Constitution? That’s a very interesting document and moment to put your treasure in. To invest your energies in. In a moment, in the early 21st century, where we’re talking a lot about 1619 as the real American founding and the 1776, the 1789 period, as really a betrayal, a further betrayal of Black people. I’m curious, what do you make of that and what do you think King would make of it? 

[00:16:24] John: It’s interesting that he’s putting the Bible and the Constitution in the same category. He’s saying they’re both documents that we need to aspire to live by. He’s not criticizing the Constitution, he’s not saying that it was a racist document or that it was an imperfect document. He’s saying, these are documents that we need to try to live up to. In doing so, he’s taking this very optimistic view at a time when cynicism might have been called for. 

He might have said, we’ve suffered, we’ve been abused, it’s time for reparations. It’s time to make good on all the wrongs that have been done to us. No, he’s saying, I believe in the Constitution. I believe in the Bible. If you believe in the Constitution and the Bible, then you must agree that we are right in what we’re doing here today. 

[00:17:11] Eboo: He’s saying it to a group of Black people who have experienced a lot more of the three-fifths clause of the Constitution than the rest of the Constitution. They know a lot more about that clause in their experience than they know, say, about the Bill of Rights. It’s interesting he’s not saying it to a group of white people. He’s saying it to a group of Black people. 

[00:17:30] John: Yes. He also knows that the white media is listening and that reporters, even from the local newspapers and from the national newspapers, are listening too. What he’s asking of his audience is to come with him on this journey, I think. He’s asking them to take the moral high ground, knowing that it will put their oppressors in a difficult position. This is straight out of Gandhi too, if we can seize the moral high ground, we change the dynamic. We make our oppressors look like the bad guy and force them to perhaps even rethink whether they want to be in that position. 


[00:18:10] Eboo: Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t just use his strategy to put his oppressors in a difficult position. He also figured out ways to work with people across the civil rights spectrum, including those whose methods he did not share, who had, let’s call it a more in-your-face approach to civil rights work. More from our guest, Jon Eig, after a quick break. I’m just putting this together right now. 

It’s interesting to play with the idea that Stokely Carmichael and mid-1960s, Malcolm X and H. Rap Brown and the Black Panthers, they’re as much a response to King as they are to white racism. Stokely Carmichael 6, 7, 10 years later, Malcolm X, are basically standing up and being like your way didn’t work. It hasn’t brought the change as quickly as we wanted it. It is an indignity to suffer not only structural racism, but also to have to be nice to the people who are being racist. There’s something you get that sense within the current edge of racial politics. I’m curious what you make of that. 

[00:19:24] John: King said unearned suffering is redemptive. The people who came after him said, “Yes, we’ve had enough of the unearned suffering, we can move on now.” Part of it was because he was so successful that you end up getting these other activists who want to push it further, faster, harder, and are offended really by his pacifistic approach, which they sometimes view as passive. They think he’s weak. The beauty of King, in fact, is that he doesn’t seem to mind being used this way. In fact, Stokely Carmichael actually at one point says to him, “You know I’m using you.” Black power sounds more ferocious. I get more attention because I’m in contrast to you. You’re the conservative alternative and Black people are rallying around me because I’m saying, “No, we want more, we want faster, we want it now.” 

King says to him, “That’s okay. I’ve been used before.” He engages with Carmichael in these conversations. He really seems to be open to learning from him. In fact, King really resists saying, “I’m not going to use Black power because it sounds hints of violence. I’m not going to use that phrase,” but a lot of what Carmichael is saying starts to work its way into King’s speeches. He starts talking about Black pride a lot more and using some of the nomenclature that Carmichael’s using. 

One of the things I love about King is that he doesn’t ever see himself as being conservative even as others try to portray him that way. I think he knows that there’s a lot of radical ideas behind what he’s saying and he appreciates the fact that people are willing to listen to him because he’s presenting it so rationally. 

[00:20:55] Eboo: I think the kind of twinning of King’s deeply radical ideas and the manner in which he presents himself, his comportment. I think that that is very hard for people to get their head around. One of the most radical things about King, again as a prince of the Black church, one of my favorite King lines is many people want to make of me many things, but in the deep recesses of my heart I’m a Baptist minister. My daddy was a Baptist minister, my granddaddy was a Baptist minister. My great granddaddy was a Baptist minister, and my commitment to Jesus as the Son of the Living God is amongst the highest commitment. It’s the highest commitment that I have higher than a raised nation or creed. I love that quote so much. I committed to memory. 

Yet here he is having his literally definition of Christianity expanded by Mahatma Gandhi. The only person that King ever nominates for the Nobel Peace Prize is a Buddhist monk, Thích Nhất Hạnh. 

You could argue that it’s that Buddhist monk who does more than any other single person to change King’s mind about his volume on the Vietnam War. He begins this long correspondence with Thích Nhất Hạnh and Thích Nhất Hạnh says, “We view you as [unintelligible 00:22:06] that is a compassionate Buddha. Do you have compassion for our people in Vietnam? 

I’m curious, what do you make of this deep believing Black Baptist for whom Christianity is the root and the center and the anchor and the North Star, use any metaphor you want, whose faith is totally changed by Mahatma Gandhi, whose politics on the Vietnam War is totally changed by a Buddhist who marches arm-in-arm with a Jew in Selma and whose closest companion in the civil rights movement is a white atheist agnostic communist Stanley Levinson. What do you make of that? 

[00:22:48] John: I make of it that he actually believes what he’s reading in the Bible, and he doesn’t think that only his version of the Bible or his religion is the right one. He’s the most fundamental thing that he takes from the Bible is the idea of love. God loves all of his children. God doesn’t love only his Christian children. God doesn’t love only his Black or white children. God created everybody in God’s image. That’s what King is taking away. I think he’s applying it in the broadest greatest potential way that he could. 

[00:23:17] Eboo: One of the things that King emphasizes in that God loves all people is love your enemies. Love your enemies because the Bible says it, love your enemies, and this is part of what I write about in my book we need to build. Love your enemies because you’re going to have to live with them after you defeat them. I actually think that is maybe King’s greatest long-term democratic genius, is the recognition that in a democracy you live with the people that you defeat and they can vote against you in the next election and they can rally against you way before the next election and they can make your life very, very difficult. Actually, even if you continue to defeat them in elections, it’s a lot better to have a good relationship with your neighbors. I’m curious what you make of this kind of understanding of King’s democratic genius. 

[00:24:05] John: Yes. I’ve thought about whether some of that comes from the idea that Black people were enslaved in this country and then having been freed, still had to live with their enslavers and Jewish people didn’t. Jewish people were enslaved in Egypt and they left and they wandered the desert and started their own people. What was it like? How was King shaped by the knowledge that his people continued to live with their enslavers and continued it throughout King’s life? 

He’s negotiating with people whose family owned slaves. I think that must be fundamental to his belief and for his Christianity to apply to that for him to contemplate the idea of loving the people who enslaved his people and loving the people who were still enforcing the laws of segregation in the South. That’s at another level that very few of us I think can wrap our heads around. 

[00:25:01] Eboo: Let me offer another theory. I think that’s the reason I say this because I’m so intrigued by what you just said. The experience of Black people in America during reconstruction, et cetera, having to live with the people you enslaved. Look, union soldiers. Black soldiers in the Union Army fighting alongside white people and thinking, “You look like the guy who like was whipping my son. Here I am fighting alongside you. Actually what you’re doing is helping me.” That is a fascinating American experience. 

Let me offer an additional theory, not a replacement, but an additional one. I think King always thought he was morally superior. He looks at white racists and he feels biblically morally superior. Not in a lorded over you way, but in a clearly my path is the right pathway, and so I don’t care how much power you have having the whip hand. I have the Bible, this is like a Desmond Tutu thing in South Africa. You might have the land, but I have the Bible, but guess what? You can too. I invite you to elevate yourself. This moral place that I am at treating people with dignity and equality, you can have it too. I invite you into it, and you know what? It’s going to be better for both of us. 

[00:26:13] John: Yes. I believe that. Some of his peers thought he was naive for that. Thought that he didn’t understand the world and the way it really worked. They thought he didn’t understand politics for sure. Thought Lyndon Johnson is dealing with you on a level you don’t understand because you’re approaching this morally and he’s approaching it from a position of power. I think King. as you said, believed he had the real power. 

[00:26:37] Eboo: Yes. Which is to the extent you can underline something in a podcast. There’s so much talk about power now and who has it. White people have power and Black people don’t have power and men have power and women don’t have power and people with college educations have power and people with only high school educations don’t have power, but the King calculus of power ought to enter into our imagination as well. This notion of morality and spirituality being I treat you with equal dignity and you and I have a mutual loyalty, and that’s power, I wish that entered into our conversation more because you know what? Anybody can have that. 

[00:27:15] John: That’s a great point. I worry that we’re losing sight of that kind of power, the moral power in part because we’re just, I don’t know, we’re living in a way, in an age when people focus less on spiritual and more on the material and the traditional sense of, or the modern sense of power is all about who has the money, who has the votes and that moral power that King talked about is sometimes forgotten. 

[00:27:39] Eboo: Here’s a moment that I’ll never forget which is Ali 1996 lighting the Olympic torch. I don’t know, I’m like 21, 22 when that happens. I don’t really understand the full weight of that moment. It’s only years later, after 911, after I connect more deeply with my own Muslim faith, after I start Interfaith America that I realized, “Oh my God, this country has changed.” That you probably the most reviled figure in America, 1968, 1969 is Muhammad Ali. Not 30 years later, he is literally the most elevated figure in the nation. 

The person who lights the Olympic torch. It’s not Jordan. It’s Ali, and one could say the same thing about King. There are times in American history, probably the Riverside Church address, April 4th, 1967 competes with Ali to be the most reviled figure in America. He is probably now. If you were to take a vote, who is the greatest American in history, he would be top five. Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy– 

[00:28:50] John: He’d be the only non-president in the top five, probably. 

[00:28:52] Eboo: What does that say about how much America changes? 

[00:28:56] John: Eh, in some ways I’m thrilled that we have made so much progress that we can see these radical figures, these rebels as American heroes, but I worry that we’ve lost sight of what made them heroes. That we’ve softened their images and tried to forget just how challenging they were. You see it clearly with both people. Ali was only loved when he could no longer speak, when he wasn’t challenging American ideas anymore, when he was safe. Same goes for King. 

When we turned him into a national holiday and a monument in Washington, we like to quote, “I have a dream and content of our character and we forget that he was attacking police brutality in that same speech at the march on Washington, that he was attacking the economic injustice that had particularly taken a heavy toll on Black Americans. While I’m thrilled that we have learned to honor and respect these men, I want to make sure that we don’t or I hope that we won’t forget just how they challenged us. 

[00:30:05] Eboo: There’s all these stories you got about King negotiating with the White Citizens’ Council. Then the firebombing of the home and dealing with police officers, throwing him into jail, both in Montgomery and in Birmingham. You are researching this and writing this as you are watching what’s happening during January 6th. As you’re watching the rise of white Christian nationalism, do you think that that movement today, the kind of Proud Boys and Oath Keepers movement today is a direct descendant of the folks who rabidly opposed King in the ’50s and ’60s? 

[00:30:48] John: I think it shows us that kind of racism hasn’t died. Some people have said that it was given more oxygen by the Trump administration or Trump’s rise to power, freed people to express their real feelings. That was under there all along. Some people have said that it was a backlash against Obama, that this racism came out because there was frustration about having had a Black president. I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s been there throughout American history, and King forced us to confront it. 

There was a moment where it seemed like he might have changed the nation’s direction, the march on Washington. There’s this beautiful coming together, there’s this sense that people of all races and religions are literally singing in harmony on the mall in Washington. Then a force arises, a white Christian nationalist force personified by J Edgar Hoover to stop him. He’s getting too powerful. It’s working. His vision is starting to take hold and we can’t let that happen. 

[00:31:49] Eboo: Is that the best way to understand J Edgar Hoover is not necessarily a government official, but as literally a white Christian nationalist within the government? 

[00:31:56] John: I think so. He considered himself a very religious man. He actually considered going into the ministry and he trained his agents in Christianity, but had this very specific view that his vision of America needed to be maintained, that the people in charge needed to stay in charge. That meant white Christians. I think that was a big part of why he came down so hard on King, that he posed a threat to the existing power structure. 

[00:32:24] Eboo: Very interesting. It is impossible to imagine the civil rights movement without religion. Religion is the animating force, the anchor, the North Star, again, like literally choose your metaphor. Every single one of them works. We live at a time of high activism and low religious commitment. What do you make of that? 

[00:32:47] John: When King began this mission, it takes hold in large part because it’s built around the church. In the late 1950s, something like three-fourths of all Americans belong to a church, and half of all Americans were in church every Sunday. He had this base from which to organize, and not just to organize, but to call upon moral beliefs, to call upon our higher beings, to call upon our best selves. 

All the reasons we go to religious services, the reason we attend is because we want to be better people. We want to make, build a better community. We want to try to live up to the image of God. King had that going for him. Now I wonder how much activism is hurt by the fact that we don’t have that core already organized group that’s easy to reach and ready to march. I think it’s a challenge. 

[00:33:39] Eboo: There’s no doubt that one of the reasons for lower attendance in churches, and religious communities in general. Now you’ve got the sex scandal in the Catholic church. You’ve got the emergence of the religious. This is well-documented by sociologists that Robert Putnam and David Campbell call this a shock and two aftershocks, the loudest dimension of particularly American Christianity embraces a very exclusivist right-wing politics. There’s a whole generation of people who’ll say, “If that’s what the church is about, I don’t want it.” 

I promised myself I would not ask you one of these questions, but here I go. I would imagine that King would understand this. He would understand the disappointment of lots of people in the way churches have functioned, and yet he could not imagine his activism without faith. Give us three or four sentences of a sermon that King might give to young people striving for justice and skeptical of faith today about the possibility of faith in their lives. 

[00:34:51] John: I never have to speculate as to what King would say. I only have to go to the books and to the sermons because he said it for us, and I don’t have it memorized. He spoke so often about the fact that we could never lose hope. That the key really for the future was to stay awake and to be receptive, to change and to not become cynical as things change, but to be open-minded and willing to adapt, knowing that you still had that faith. Those are the closing words that I use from King in the book. That we must remain awake to change and we must continue to fight for what we believe in, no matter what change comes our way. I think that’s the message for today, that we can’t get cynical no matter how tempting it may be. 

[00:35:36] Eboo: John Eig, thank you for being who you are, and thank you for being with me this afternoon. 

[00:35:40] John: Thank you. 

[00:35:45] Eboo: Friends, I have a question, a challenge even. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was able to mobilize people in part because he knew where they were going to be showing up in church. That was simply a part of the pattern of their lives. Times have changed and people don’t make showing up at a house of worship part of the pattern of their lives in the same way. 

If we’re not meeting and getting organized in places of worship, where do we meet and get organized? How do we adapt and stay connected to change and open to hope? To read more about this conversation and to find resources and stories about bridge building in our religiously diverse democracy, visit our website, www.interfaithamerica.org. I’m Eboo Patel. 


Intro/outro music provided by Mysterylab Music and composed by Mott Jordan.

Credit music provided by Die Hard Productions.

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