Dr. King, Justice Ginsburg, and Radical Social Change
Yesterday, I spent a lot of time, thinking about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I went to two events yesterday. I went to the local NAACP’s (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Martin Luther King, Jr., Day Program.
and then I went to see “On the Basis of Sex.”
I saw many points of intersection between Dr. King and Justice Ginsburg and their journeys for justice and radical social change.
The NAACP event was held at a Black church. Just an aside about the NAACP. Black people aren’t called “colored people” anymore. I know we were once called “colored people.” But that changed. And I know the NAACP is a brand and organization and it has a history. Maybe “colored people” now means “people of color” and so includes not just Black people. I don’t know. I just feel a “little kinda something” about the “colored people” language, but I’m not fighting that today.
Back to the program, held late afternoon in a Black church. The attendees filled the church and the group was extraordinarily diverse – Blacks and Whites. This diversity was contrary to the reality in 1968 when King noted: “We must face the sad fact that at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning when we stand to sing ‘In Christ there is no East or West,’ we stand in the most segregated hour of America.” (Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution, March 31, 1968). It is contrary to most churches, even today, 50 years later, that are generally very segregated, for America never really integrated. But today, at 3:00, the church was not segregated. It was very much integrated.
Appearances matters. The visual makes a statement. It is important to show up. It was important for Black people and White people to both show up. And they did.
They showed up at a Black Church with images of a White Jesus. The Black church with the White Jesus. There were White images in the stained glass,
but also just a framed picture of a White Jesus.
I wanted to try to be ok with the stained-glass window as a historical legacy of the building, where as the framed art, seemed to have been a deliberate choice and decision and one that could be easily removed or taken down. But, maybe no one else is bothered by the image, or if so, maybe they do not feel that they can speak up.
Should it matter? If race didn’t matter in America, it shouldn’t matter, but I’ve never seen a Black Jesus in a White church. And, because in America, Whites had the power to define by law the rights, opportunities, and access for African-Americans, one would think that when African-Americans garnered the power to define their savior, the savior would look like the people the savior seeks to save, rather than the image of one who resembles those who have enslaved, dehumanized, and devalued them.
This issue of the portrayal of Jesus causes me to reflect on a famous Exuma artist, Amos Ferguson, who often painted religious and church scenes. In describing his work, it was said that “Every painting he has ever did of Jesus, Jesus has always been white, but for the angels, the angels are both black and white. https://search.alexanderstreet.com/preview/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cvideo_work%7C2657950
In an article about Amos called “The Colour of God and Histories of Faith,” a Bahamian writer noted the anomaly of a White Jesus in an essentially a majority Black-skinned people and country:
“Ferguson’s deference to white-Jesus is as much testament to our complicated history with Christianity as a postcolonial nation as much as it is a testament to his deep love of religion. As we begin to see shifts in people trying to construct more positivity in moving forward from what is a very difficult past, we can begin to question our ties to religion in this space in a way that is critical but also sensitive. We had Christianity forced upon us during the colonial era, with many African practices being demonized or marginalized as a result, but so many more have been able to find a sense of hope and salvation. We can embrace Christianity while having a saviour with a brown face; we can have a love and appreciation for spiritual practices different to this that are rooted in our African ancestry without worrying about eternal damnation. All in all, the message that Ferguson, Jesus, Haile Selassie, Oshun, Yemaya and any other number of followers and leaders and figures in religion preach is the same: peace, love, and goodwill.” (Natalie Willis, December 28, 2017).
I wonder, though, are Black congregations really allowed to “question”? What does it mean to question critically, but sensitively? What would it mean to have a conversation in Black churches about the images in the sanctuary?
I often reflect on one image of Jesus that has remained with me.
This painting — by David Cassidy — is at Metropolitan Interdominational Church in Nashville, Tennessee. A profound visual depiction of diversity, with a universal message of outstretched arms. I have always been inspired by David’s art. His art reminds me of Cuba.
I remember my shock in Cuba, walking into a Catholic Church, and seeing Black images of Mary and of Jesus.
They integrated and blended African traditions and practices with Catholicism in a way that was natural, symbiotic, and empowering. Perhaps we can learn more from Cuba. In a “Promising Reality,” I reflect on the complex history of Cuba with race, gender, and culture.
Perhaps churches – both Black and White – could have conversations – not just about Jesus and his skin color – but more importantly, about race, and about gender and about identity and about validation, affirmation, and power? About the role of the church in eliminating, and/or perpetuating oppression? About the role of women, of Black women, in the Black Baptist church?
King was a critic of the church, even as he had a deep love for the church: “The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s often vocal sanction of things as they are.” (Letter from the Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963). He encouraged the church to fight against the status quo in society: “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.” (A Knock at Midnight, June 11, 1967)
He called on churches to be agents of social transformation:“There was a time when the church was very powerful….The church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was the thermostat that transformed the mores of society.” (Letter from the Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963).
Like Dr. King, Justice Ginsburg called up the judicial system to be a thermostat for radical social change. The words, “radical social change” became part of her call on the moral conscience of the judicial system — encouraging the justices to have the courage to recognize the existing movement of cultural and tradition causing the laws to be irrelevant. Radical social change of culture and tradition led to more equality for the LGBTQ community with legalized gay and lesbian marriage – a recognition that ideas and attitudes had shifted about gender identity and sexual orientation. Yet, shifts are rarely complete. For there is still discrimination against the LGBTQ community; there is discrimination against women; and there is discrimination against racial minorities.
How do we fight this ongoing oppression? Both Dr. King and Justice Ginsburg remind us the power of education. Ruth was Harvard/Columbia trained in the 1950s and Martin had a PhD in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. Their education gave them words, concepts, and approaches. It gave them skills for persuasion; it gave them words to lead social movements; and it gave them tools to facilitate radical social change. We must have the words and the tools. While we can be activists without an education, for education is not a prerequisite for activism, knowledge is necessary for activism. Knowledge and education are powerful tools and we need as many tools as possible in the war for radical social change.
Justice Ginsburg’s journey reflected that – words matter. In response the appellate court’s statement that the word, “women” does not appear in the Constitution, she aptly noted that the word “freedom” also doesn’t appear. As such, the absence of these foundational concepts begs for radical social change – a recurring theme in Justice Ginsburg’s career.
Radical social change means challenging and fighting against institutions. We have to be willing to challenge the status quo, fearlessly, with the right tools. Tools enable and empower activists to set high standards. Dr. King challenged the church to a high standard — a standard of eliminating segregation: “The Philosophy of Christianity is strongly opposed to the underlying philosophy of segregation. Therefore, every Christian is confronted with the basic responsibility of working courageously for a non-segregated society. The task of conquering segregation is an inescapable must confronting the Christian Churches.” (The Role of the Church in Facing the Nation’s Chief Moral Dilemma, April 25, 1957).
Likewise, Justice Ginsburg challenged the appellate court to a high standard of gender equity – of eliminating distinctions on the basis of sex. We should set high standards for justice and the institutions that have a moral responsibility to uphold justice – the courts and the church. I shudder when I think of the recent Supreme Court hearings and the appointment of the newest justice. What does his appointment say about moral responsibility of our legislative bodies? What standard do we hold them to? What standard do they hold themselves? How can we, women, women of color, men of color, expect justice from a system that seemingly perpetuates injustice?
Yet, I remain encouraged. At the NAACP event, Prof. Brandy Faulkner – the keynote speaker, a phenomenal scholar, activist, and organizer at Virginia Tech, delivered a brilliant message. She used the Biblical Story of David and Goliath as an analogy for the battle against the Goliath of oppression and discrimination.
In her message, she illustrated the tools that we need to defeat Goliath through a discussion of the five stones David selected for the battle. In ascribing qualities of character to the stones — self-awareness, commitment, sacrifice, courage, and preparation – she illustrated what it takes for activists to be successful in this battle. It has been a battle. The Civil Rights Movement was a battle.
These images tell that story — that battle — against the Goliath of guns, against hoses, against hate, against violence. It demonstrates the
fierce determination and resilience of a people to stand up for their humanity. These everyday citizens were persuaded by only words and their own sense of justice and a need for radical social change to peacefully and non-violently protest. Why, How?
They had to have the qualities of character that Prof. Faulkner shared in the stones: self-awareness, commitment, sacrifice, courage, and preparation. These tools, David’s tools, were the same tools for Dr. King, and the same tools for Justice Ginsburg. All three of them had a profound awareness of their own identity, a deep commitment to the cause of justice and equity, a willingness to sacrifice, an understanding of the importance of preparation, and a deep reserve of courage. As Dr. Faulkner reminded us, David didn’t just gather stones and talk a good game. He acted. He used his slingshot to defeat the giant.
Speaking up and showing up is not enough. As Jane Ginsburg (Ruth’s daughter) in “On the Basis of Sex” noted: “It is not a movement if everyone is sitting around; it is a support group.” The men, women, and children in Selma and Birmingham didn’t just sit around at a church program. BUT THEY HAD TO GO TO THOSE PROGRAMS. They had to hear Dr. King. They had to believe him. They had to show up to get inspired. And then, after the inspiration, they had to look deep into their own hearts and souls and minds and make a decision. Because of their decision, we are, I am.
I am who I am today because of them — because of Black and White activists and organizers and scholars who showed up — at talks, in churches, in schools, and in classrooms. One of those talks is below:
This talk to high school students in Philadelphia, on
October 26, 1967, King delivered his speech “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint?” Analogizing the blueprint needed for a building, to the blueprint we should have for our lives, he asks us if we have proper, solid, and sound blueprint. He suggests in our life’s blueprint, we should have a “deep belief in our own dignity, work, and somebodyness — the Principle of Somebodyness.” He talks about never being ashamed of our skin color and hair features.
Secondly, he says we must have “the determination to achieve excellence” in our life’s work. He said that doors are opening and we must be prepared. Study hard and burn the midnight oil. Don’t drop out of school — for any reason.” He admonishes us to do a job so well that the living, dead and unborn couldn’t do it any better. Be the best at what ever you are — regardless of the odds of oppression that are against you.
Finally, in our life’s blueprint, there must be a “commitment to the eternal principles of beauty, love, and justice.” He says that we have a responsibility to make life better for everybody. He says everybody must be involved in the struggle for freedom and justice with a “method that is militant but non-violent.” He encourages us to “transform dark yesterdays of injustice into bright tomorrows of justice and humanity.” He ends with a poem my mother recital at her own funeral — symbolically — Mother to Son by Langston Hughes. (My mother, Mildred, recorded a DVD at the age of 80 of her reciting poetry, with a requirement to play it at her funeral — full of wisdom about how to get through this life and to be prepared for death).
As Dr. King said, “Life for none of us has been a crystal stair, but we must keep moving. We must keep going.” He ends with this famous quote:
And we must keep moving, for there is a generation behind us that needs us to keep moving. In the words of the granddaughter of Dr. King, Yolanda Renee King, their generation “we will be a great generation.”
May more of us, on this Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday, review our blueprint for our lives, pick up our stones and prepare to use them on the battlefield to “transform dark yesterdays of injustice into bright tomorrows of justice and humanity.”