In “Parting the Waters,” the Pulitzer-Prize winning story of the early years of the civil rights movement, Taylor Branch describes some of the differences between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s goals and those of the NAACP. King, following the teachings of Gandhi, was hoping to do more than merely put an end to segregation. King wanted to bring about what Christians call a “conversion experience.”
King believed, and rightly so, that racism is a spiritual condition. It is more than just a set of ideas that a person may agree or disagree with. It is a deep-seated perspective on the nature of reality. People who are racist don’t just believe that their race is superior, they know it.
King believed the only way to change an attitude that is deeply rooted in human nature was through divine intervention. He believed nonviolent demonstrations and passive nonresistance would expose the evil of racism and the resulting segregation. By bringing it into the light, people would see just how wrong it was and would repent and turn away from it.
The leaders of the NAACP of that day, while appreciating and valuing King’s commitment to nonviolence were nevertheless more earthbound with their goals. They saw the harsh realities of segregation in terms of politics and economics. Approaching the problem from a practical standpoint, they believed the way to end segregation and its resulting oppression was to change the law.
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History has demonstrated that both King and the NAACP were right. Segregation as a social order was so deeply rooted in our culture that force of law was the only way it would end. And racism, as a spiritual disorder, is so deeply rooted in human consciousness that nothing short of a conversion experience can change a person’s mind and heart.
Fortunately, the law changed. Racial discrimination and segregation are no longer legal. Unfortunately, King’s dream of seeing a nation united rather than divided by race has not made as much progress.
Partly because of the political and legal victories, and partly because of King’s death, the emphasis on the spiritual nature of racism has slipped out of focus. Finding ways to change the minds and hearts of people about race remains the unfinished business of the civil rights movement.
And that brings us to Louisiana justice of the peace, Judge Keith Bardwell. Bardwell claims he is not a racist. He argues that he would not do anything that would restrict any person of any race from having a job, going to school or enjoying the freedoms of living in America – with one glaring exception. When Terence McKay, an African-American, sought to marry Beth Humphrey, a white woman, Bardwell said no. His reason for refusing: the couple’s future children would likely suffer from a lack of acceptance.
I guess Bardwell assumes everyone thinks the way he thinks.
This attitude reveals that spiritually the judge is a racist. He did not filter his decision through the lens of legal orthodoxy that he would ordinarily use when dealing with matters of race. He acted out of his spiritual depths, out of the core of who he really is.
Bardwell’s decision serves to remind us that we need to finish what King started. With the best of our faith, and with the courage of our trust in God, we must provoke repentance away from racism, and conversion toward the ideal that all persons are created equal. After all, unless we root racism out of our hearts, there is no way to be sure that the law will hold.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.