April 2020 Christian Sunday School in Georgia during my youth taught theology, Bible stories and the importance of certain behavioral norms. The ten commandments and the duty to support evangelical and church ministries were especially emphasized as activities when the subject of concern was current obligations. The old testament prophets were seen by my teachers as predictors of the coming of Jesus Christ and as denouncers of the worship of graven images. There was nothing memorable in my highly religious upbringing that signaled to me that Jesus or the prophets were social critics whose message would have likely challenged the status quo in my own society, whether one looked at that society from the regional or national level. The exception had come unexpectedly at a graveside funeral when I was ten years old.
I have told the story elsewhere. My experience at the funeral of my home town’s most hated citizen had left me with at least a strong suspicion that each and every human being was loved by a deity who had also created them. The leader of the funeral, the funeral director, had sobbed in sympathy with our heavenly father who he was convinced was in grief over the crimes and death of the murderer whose funeral he was directing. I had sobbed as well, and I never forgot the overwhelming conviction that the funeral director saw life and God more clearly than those of us who had come to the funeral with our much more traditional hatred for the killer we were burying. We had all been taught that God loved believing Christians, especially good ones. A usually unspoken corollary of that belief had been the assumption that God hated evil men. The funeral director empathized with his God, who had brought each of us into the world out of love, and who was heartbroken over our sins and our deaths.
But this funeral epiphany was an anomaly in an early life that taught more by the values of those around me than by explicit lessons from all sources of intentional teaching. I believe most people learn from the examples of those around them. Everyone I knew practiced their parts in a play that they accepted as the script for the way things were and ought to be. And that script did not call for critically looking at the social system or its values.
I did not approve of the racial caste system or the economic class system that was just as real. Neither did I approve of the weather or the calendar. All of these features of my boyhood reality were simply that–reality. I never stopped to consider very seriously whether the injustices I accepted were condemned by the God I worshipped.
Despite the near totalitarianism of the prevailing regime, there were a few influences which were contradictory. And these came primarily from my protestant Christian religion.
A song from summer Bible school seemed diametrically opposed to any notion that some races were of lesser worth than others.”Jesus loves the little children Little children of the world Red and yellow, black and white All are precious in his sight Jesus loves the children of the world”
And did not the revered founders of the country proclaim that “All men are created equal? And endowed them with certain inalienable rights. Among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” These suggestions were given lip service by the same people who made sure that nonwhites stayed subservient and that the advantages of the rich were maintained even at he expense of the suffering of the poor.
Perhaps even more important of these contradictions were some of the teachings of Jesus as recorded in Matthew and Luke. His birth in a stable and the socially low position of his followers seemed to fit the teachings of this savior who was hated by the ruling economic and religious elite. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke portrayed Jesus as a charismatic Jew who was on the side of the poor and despised against the pretensions of the ruling elites. But again that was then, and these were different times. No one ever presented Jesus as a critic of the society I lived in.
As I entered college my vision of politics was about as conventionally Southern moderate as my upbringing would have predicted. It was 1960 and the Democratic nomination had just gone to John Kennedy. During the summer I had spent in the office of Senator Richard Russell I had been a follower of the campaign of John Kennedy. Although Kennedy was of course much more left than Russell, the dean of the Southern Caucus, he never advocated the civil rights cause until he was pushed in 1963 by the events in the streets of Birmingham. But virtually all Southern whites were still Democrats. I was a staunch anti-communist and very suspicious of both labor organizations and civil rights agitators. I suspected organized labor of being susceptible to communist and mafia infiltration, and I suspected civil rights activists for many other reasons which had been handed to me by my Southern culture.
Then I enrolled in the obligatory Bible class that Emory required every undergraduate to take. It was team taught by the Bible department. But several days each week included a meeting of only some of the total enrolled students with one of the faculty, small groups split off from the larger class. My good fortune was to get an old fellow named Hebe Reese.
The “Hebe” was not his christened name, but a nickname earned by his youthful enthusiasm for the Hebrew Bible, an enthusiasm that had not waned with age. He was well respected by men like my Father, who had known him since they were Emory undergraduates. In an all white institution for middle and upper class bunch boys, he had been the Dean of Men for many years. He was gentle, direct and engaging. And he taught what he loved best–the Hebrew prophets, about whom I knew very little. Before I finished that course Hebe had showed me a side of the prophets that was beyond predicting Jesus. The prophets he talked about were convinced their God demanded justice for the poor and the unfortunate, that He was not extremely interested in animal sacrifice or temple attendance, and that He loved all of humanity and demanded that we love each other.
Our classroom for these group meeting was separated by several hundred yards from the main campus area. One day after group I walked with Hebe from our class building back to that main campus area. I asked a question that had been on my mind for several days: what would a modern American prophet look like if there were such a person? Hebe answered almost immediately: consider the possibility that Martin Luther King Jr. is such a person. I found that response so far fetched I dismissed it immediately. I only knew what I had heard about King. So to me he was an agitator who had been making unreasonable demands for. desegregation. It was the spring of 1961. Despite my scepticism the suggestion got stuck somewhere in the back of my mind.
During the next few years I did well enough in school to be presented during my Junior year with an opportunity to go on scholarship to Harvard University for summer courses in 1963. I took my opportunity. So i spent the period the civil rights movement called “Freedom Summer” at America’s most famous liberal institution of higher learning.
You might suppose that a Southern moderate in these circumstances would find himself being influenced to completely re-evaluate his conservative outlook on the issues of the times. But that supposition would be inaccurate. Harvard had as few Black college students that summer as Emory back in Georgia, i.e., none. One of my professors told his class that he had never visited any Southern state and did not want to. He cracked that he would be pleased if bulldozers scraped those states into the Gulf of Mexico. I was horrified, and certainly not moved by Harvard in the direction of sympathy for the forces of change. I returned to Georgia in late August as convinced as ever that no significant change was going to happen for a very long time. I felt no sense of any urgency to end racial discrimination and segregation.
One afternoon I stop trying to play outside because of the heat. My friend Hugh Thompson and I watched The March on Washington on television. We watched many thousands listen to speeches at the Lincoln Memorial in D.C. King was to speak last, and I remember enduring what to me were very unconvincing efforts to urge civil rights legislation. Then he spoke.
Marin Luther King’s speech at the March on Washington is justifiably one of history’s most famous. It certainly deserves to be. Its content includes eloquent appeals to brotherly love and for forgiveness of those who fail to live up to both the call of the ancient prophets and those of the idealists who founded the United States. It eloquently describes the aspirations of African Americans and the poor of all races. It also embodies the ideal of universal harmony and fellowship, the love of parents for their small children, and the faith in the future that endures present hardship for eventual triumph. Through his words and demeanor I was moved within a few minutes to feeling enormous sympathy for his cause. I sat down that afternoon one man and got up another. I had encountered the power of prophecy from this Black Christian preacher. Hebe had been right on target.