Walter Earl Fluker’s call to the Black church
In King’s time, the goal was to stir the churches to struggle. Now it’s to wake the dead.
When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, he symbolized the hope of a post-racial solution to the United States’s congenital anti-Blackness and racism. His election supposedly proved that established traditions of anti-racist politics are obsolete. Those who still talked about America’s anti-Blackness and racism needed to get their clocks fixed; as he said in his first inaugural address, their arguments were stale and no longer applied.
But by 2013, the political ground had shifted, yielding a movement proclaiming defiantly that Black lives matter. The reproach in this three-word message was ingeniously understated. Alicia Garza, a queer Black organizer, coined the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter along with her friends Patrisse Cullors and Ayo. Tometi after George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin. Garza said it continued to surprise her how little Black lives matter. Many who flocked to the movement that became BLM had heard enough about Martin Luther King’s dream and were scarred by hostile treatment from White society, especially by police. Many were raised on the bromide that they had to become respectable to avert a bad future—and BLM leaders were sharply critical of the Black church’s legacy on this subject, contending that the church discredited itself by preaching a religion and politics of respectability.
Historically, Black churches otherwise different from each other were bound to each other by the simple creed of non-racism. Their common task was to hold off the abusive racism of the dominant society. Founders of the Black Social Gospel tradition (such as William Simmons, Alexander Walters, and Reverdy C. Ransom) and subsequent Black Social Gospel leaders (such as Adam Clayton Powell Sr., Nannie Burroughs, Mordecai Johnson, and King) called on White Americans to stop betraying their American and Christian ideals. But BLM activists judged the Black church’s tradition of non-racism and argued that it undercut their agency by leaving them no real realm of action to change society.