Whitewashing Dr. Martin Luther King Junior

bju-observes-martin-luther-king-jr-dayThis Wasn’t My Idea.

Last week, ‘BJU Blogs‘ reported University President Steve Pettit to have announced that as of January 2017, Bob Jones University will observe Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day each year. Plans are to close the school offices, cancel classes, and to encourage students to participate in Greenville area service opportunities and prayer sessions centered on racial harmony.

Far be it from me, to accuse Bob Jones University of doing a ‘PR’ job to ‘fix’ public perception of the University line on Dr. King. Pettit relates:

“Dr. King accomplished much in his short life here on earth,” said Pettit. “We believe his voice and leadership to nonviolently oppose the wrongs of the day while paving the way for racial equality and harmony should be respected and honored.”

We waited so long … for this?

Tame? That’s downright innocuous. To serve up this just two years shy of a half-century lacks all conviction. Whatever took BJU so long?

Much has and will be said and written about Dr. King. David Stewart [the head-case at the fundie ‘Jesus Is Savior’ website] informs us that King was a false teacher with a Communist agenda who ‘openly incited violence under the banner of “nonviolence.”’ Presenting no evidence, Stewart makes many hysterical assertions about King. But Stewart isn’t alone.

J. Carville and others cite a supposedly sane and decidedly more influential Jerry Falwell who also questions Dr. King’s commitment to non-violence.

In my thankfully brief intersection with fundamentalism, I soon learned that the communist Martin Luther King Jr. line was a recurring motif.

Meeting Daniel K. Williams

Daniel Williams, associate professor of history at the University of West Georgia, unfolds this intriguing story. His perspective helps us assess MLK related hysteria and misgivings, and explains the broader civic/religious connection in fundamentalism. In his book, God’s Own Party, he writes:

‘The contrast between Graham and Falwell’s messages signaled a fault line in conservative Protestantism that would divide mainstream evangelicals from self-identified fundamentalists for the next generation.’

How things went as they did

Williams’ steady hand shows that politics and faith together divided ‘evangelicals’ and the Falwell/Jones/Rice/etc. crowd. The divisions in political life and the faith community were replicated in each other.

Particularly telling is a section, ‘The “Christian Americanism” of Bob Jones Jr.’ In addition to illuminating differences between the Senior and Junior Jones, Williams relates a side of early BJ Jr. which may not be so well known. More than one may guess, Christian fundamentalism was the political engine that powered the US ever more reactionary tendency.

A Case in Point

‘Jones became an ardent crusader against communism and political liberalism…’ Williams wrote. He adds that in Dec. 1950, Jones hosted a convention where many free-world foreign diplomats delivered speeches. Jones gave the keynote address and castigated the Department of State for ‘inexcusable stupidity or vicious betrayal.’ He charged it for throwing China’s democracy forces to ‘the raving wolves of the Kremlin.’

The ‘A-HA’ Moment

Bob Jones Jr. is the articulate and comparatively erudite version of the David Stewarts of the world. But far from rising above Stewart’s level, the rhetoric and perspective of Bob Jones Jr. normalizes Stewart’s hysterics.

Liberals and democratic socialists recognize that the socialist tendencies of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In that day, anticommunism was treated by many Christian fundamentalists as a necessary adjunct to the gospel. For many fundamentalist leaders, the mass demonstrations were not so much demands for racial equality as a political challenge to capitalist rule.

Over time, King’s socialist tendency was forgotten. To the degree that this is so, he becomes socially tolerable. So Pettit can now say of King:

“We believe his voice and leadership to nonviolently oppose the wrongs of the day while paving the way for racial equality and harmony should be respected and honored.”

I can’t help but think even that milquetoast remark is forthcoming solely because Dr. King’s socialist tendency is largely forgotten, so that he can now be portrayed as someone who should be ‘respected and honored.’

Otherwise, why did we have to wait 48 years — just for this?

Methinks a post on the ‘service opportunities’ and ‘prayer sessions’ centered on racial harmony might be in order…