Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel


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This magisterial follow-up to The New Abolition, a Grawemeyer Award winner, tells the crucial second chapter in the black social gospel's history. The civil rights movement was one of the most searing developments in modern American history. It abounded with noble visions, resounded with magnificent rhetoric, and ended in nightmarish despair. It won a few legislative victories and had a profound impact on U.S. society, but failed to break white supremacy. The symbol of the movement, Martin Luther King Jr., soared so high ...

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Dec 6, 2018

The Black Social Gospel And Martin Luther King

With the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. several excellent books have explored King's mission and achievement. Among the most thoughtful studies of King is this new book by Gary Dorrien, "Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel." The book explores the Black Social Gospel Movement in depth and shows its influence on King. Surprisingly, the Black Social Gospel has received relatively little detailed prior study. Dorrien's earlier study, "The New Abolition" traces the influence of earlier thinkers in the movement on W.E.B. DuBois. Dorrien, the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary has a background in social activism and has written widely cross-cutting the fields of ethics, social theory, theology, philosophy, politics, and history. These subjects all are in play, in Breaking White Supremacy". Dorrien is heavily influenced in his thinking by post-Kantian German idealism which he regards as the greatest intellectual movement of the modern world. This philosophical approach heightened the book's interest for me.

This book is long, difficult and at times difficult to follow. It succeeds in its aim of showing the importance of the Black Social Gospel Movement and is an inspiration to read. Dorrien focuses on the life and work of six individuals in Black Social Gospel, Mordecai Johnson, Benjamin Mays, Howard Thurman, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Martin Luther King, Jr, and Pauli Murray. Dorrien offers detailed discussions of their lives, works, and influences on each other. The work of King is at the center of the book and receives the most attention.

The social gospel movement of Walter Rauschenbusch and his followers has received considerable academic attention, but the Black Social Gospel is far less known. Defining the movement precisely is difficult, but Dorrien offers the following summary.

"The full-fledged black social gospel stood for social justice religion and modern critical consciousness. It combined an emphasis on black dignity and personhood with protest activism for racial justice, a comprehensive social justice agenda,, an insistence that authentic Christian faith is incompatible with racial prejudice, an emphasis on the social teaching of Jesus, and an acceptance of modern scholarship and social consciousness" (p. 3)

Dorrien argues that Black Social Gospel was critical to King's thought and to his actions as leader of the Civil Rights Movement. Different scholars have taken different aproaches to King's thought with some tending to downplay the philosophical doctrine of personalism he learned during his graduate study. Commendably, Dorrien stresses the continuity between the Black Social Gospel influence on King and the philosophy he learned. The book stresses the earlier and perhaps more fundamental Black Social Gospel because its influence pervaded King's life and is probably less well-known than the philosophy of personalism.

Of the six figures Dorrien discusses, the first three were born to hard lives of Southern poverty and struggled to work themselves up to academic and theological distinction. Each of the three were direct influences on King. Johnson was president of Howard University and had an important role in introducing King to the thought of Gandhi. Mays was the president of Morehouse College where King took his undergraduate degree and a lifelong mentor. Thurman was a lecturer, preacher, and writer with a profound sense of mysticism to go with his commitment to the poor and the downtrodden. I found the discussion of these three individuals the most fascinating part of this book as Dorrien explores their lives and writings. I wanted to learn and read more about Mays and, in particular, about Thurman. At a key point in his life, Thurman studied with the Quaker philosopher and mystic Rufus Jones at Haverford College. I didn't know anything about Rufus Jones but Dorrien's discussion made me want to learn about him. Thurman wrote a book titled "Jesus and the Disinherited" that King loved together with other books of a broader mystical tenor. Dorrien shows he is a writer worth knowing. Thurman was less an activist than others in the Black Social Gospel Movement but he supported activism. Dorrien offers this wonderful quote from Thurman.

"Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." (Dorrien, p. 162)

Following the discussion of these three Black Social Gospel pioneers, Dorrien offers a lengthy discussion of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. who served as Congressman from Harlem for 20 years and whose checkered career made him a rival to King. There was much to Powell that I learned from Dorrien in terms of his contribution to activism and to themes from the Black Social Gospel.

Martin Luther King's work is at the heart of this book and is discussed in two lengthy chapters. The book describes King's thought and the influence of Black Social Gospel and personalistic idealism. Much of the discussion of King, however, involves a recounting of his career and activism that can be found in many other studies.

The final chapter of the book discusses black theology in the person of James Cone and other thinkers. The key figure in this section, however is Pauli Murray who had a long, brilliant career as an activist, attorney, scholar, and minister and is only recently receiving the attention she deserves.While the remaining figures in the book influenced or were contemporaneous with King, Murray, particularly late in her life, drew on King when she entered the clergy and attempted to expound and expand upon his work in the Black Social Gospel.

Dorrien's book offers a moving, inspiring account of the Black Social Gospel movement both in its influence on King and in its own account. Dorrien concludes that the Black Social Gospel "played a key role in creating America's greatest liberation movement and played a large role in carrying it out. And it remains the basis on which many hold fast to the dream of the Beloved Community."(p. 504) I found much to learn from this book.

Robin Friedman

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