The Sad Irony of this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

First, an observation which I seldom see in print: King remembered going to a lecture on the principles of Gandhi, and how it changed his thinking. And Gandhi remembered reading Henry David Thoreau‘s “Civil Disobedience” while in jail in South Africa. Now, of course, we know that another South African prisoner, Nelson Mandela, was, in turn, inspired by King in South Africa, where Gandhi had both spent time in jail, and read “Civil Disobedience.”

Some may recall that Thoreau was an Abolitionist, and that Lawrence, Kansas’ main street is named “Massachusetts Street” and not “Main Street” for the New England Emigrant Aid Society, many of whose fundraisers were held in Massachusetts and some of which were attended by Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, his friend and neighbor. Wikipedia:

The slavery crisis inflamed New England in the 1840s and 1850s. The environment became especially tense after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. A lifelong abolitionist, Thoreau delivered an impassioned speech which would later become Civil Disobedience in 1848, just months after leaving Walden Pond. The speech dealt with slavery, but at the same time excoriated American imperialism, particularly the Mexican–American War.

And so, Thoreau must be pleased in the Hereafter. Gandhi was able to translate Thoreau’s theoretical clarity into strategy and tactics, and King and Mandela were able to perfect them. And those tactics toppled the dictatorships of Egypt and Tunisia last year, before the wave of non-violence of the “Arab Spring” was quashed in the classical gunfire of repression. A more profound wave of world revolution has rarely happened even WITH guns. Without guns, it is astonishing.

It has always seemed odd to me that, in order for that little essay, written in the environs of Walden “Pond” to arrive in Montgomery, Alabama, it had to detour through South Africa and India. But that was its original purpose, fulfilled long after the death of the author.

If you have a moment, read (or, hopefully, re-read) “Civil Disobedience,” as influential an essay as you’ll find in American letters.

And, by the by, the old saw “That government is best which governs least,” is coined in the first sentence of the essay.

While Gandhi is always mentioned and Thoreau is never mentioned in Martin Luther King, Jr. remembrances, King himself said this:

During my student days I read Henry David Thoreau’s essay On Civil Disobedience for the first time. Here, in this courageous New Englander’s refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery’s territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times.

I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed, they are more alive than ever before. Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau’s insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice.

The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.

But that’s not the sad irony of this day of observance.

The sad irony is that Martin Luther King was a Baptist preacher in the South, but, significantly, NOT a Southern Baptist preacher:

The Progressive National Baptist Convention, Incorporated (PNBC) is a convention of African-American Baptists emphasizing civil rights and social justice. The convention was formed at Cincinnati, Ohio in 1961, in a separation from the older National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc. (NBCUSA). After the 1954 Supreme Court ruling concerning desegregation of public schools, the NBCUSA followed a policy of official detachment from the Civil Rights Movement. The desire of some members for the Convention’s full support of the movement was a focus of discontent. Other disagreements concerned the election of officers and the length of the Convention president’s term. The old Convention was unwilling to enforce the tenure of officers, and it did not fully support the program and methods of Martin Luther King, Jr. and others in the Civil Rights Movement. The proposal to limit tenure was also related to civil rights issues, as King supported the removal of the president, Joseph H. Jackson. King’s support for and nomination of Gardner Taylor as president of the NBCUSA was defeated at the 1961 Convention, leading to the call for the formation of a new convention.

The Southern Baptist denomination is the #1 Protestant denomination in the USA. It emerged from a schism with the American (Northern) Baptist church in the 1850s, over, you guessed it, slavery. (Historical footnote: the Baptists midwifed the First Amendment —  fearful that the New England Puritans would outlaw them, as had been the case at the foundation of the colony — by insisting that a religious freedom clause be inserted into the Bill of Rights.)

We’ll skip over the long, ugly road that the Southern Baptists took through justifying slavery and then Jim Crow.

By the 1980s, it was fairly mainstream, and then a Texas judge decided that it was getting too “liberal.”

Holy War: Fundamentalists Fight To Capture the Soul Of Southern Baptists
— Purges and Censorship Grow As Zealots Try to Finish Takeover From ‘Liberals’ — Where Women Went Wrong

By Peter Waldman, The Wall Street Journal
March 7, 1988


What fundamentalists say they are doing now is cleansing the leadership of a small cadre of liberals who have tried to subvert traditional Baptist belief in the complete literal truth of the Bible. These fundamentalists call themselves “inerrantists,” after their position that Scripture contains no error.

It was Justice Pressler who figured out a way to “recapture” control. The Texas jurist realized that less than 5% of eligible delegates usually showed up at the denomination’s annual convention. He says those who came, many of them denominational employees on expense accounts, brought about a “liberal drift” by electing liberal officers who in turn appointed liberal trustees to the boards of church agencies.

Justice Pressler and like-minded fellows became circuit riders, traveling from church to church to exhort inerrantists to attend the annual convention. The strategy worked. Since 1979, fundamentalists have elected every denominational president. And as trustee terms have expired, inerrantists have gained control of the largest agencies.

“What we’re doing here is basically returning the Southern Baptist Convention to the people,” contends Justice Pressler, interviewed on a preaching trip to rural Tennessee. “If return of the convention has a detrimental fallout in some areas, that’s a small price to pay.”

That fallout is everywhere. In January, George Sheridan lost a job with the Atlanta-based Southern Baptist Home Missions Board because of his views on Judaism. He had been the evangelical agency’s ecumenical representative in the Northeast for 12 years, working closely with Jewish groups in metropolitan New York, his home. In 1986, he wrote an article stating that Jews retain a “covenantal” relationship with God, as spelled out in the Old Testament, and therefore shouldn’t be targets of evangelism. Recently the Home Missions Board, in a letter citing Mr. Sheridan’s beliefs about Judaism, gave him three weeks’ notice to accept a non-ecumenical post in Atlanta or resign. He quit.

“There’s a good aspect to my case,” he says. “It was never openly stipulated before that the denomination has official theological positions. At least they finally took a public stand.”

Women are especially affected by the fundamentalist drive. In 1984, the convention passed a resolution stating that because Eve initiated sin in the Garden of Eden, women should be forever subject to men. Accordingly, the Home Missions Board announced it would refuse financial aid to churches hiring female pastors. In Fort Worth, Texas, emboldened trustees of Southwestern seminary denied a faculty appointment for a prominent local pastor because women served as deacons of his church.

The Home Missions Board resolution also prompted the Shelby County Baptist Association’s move against Mrs. Sehested in Tennessee. The local group voted to “disfellow” her Memphis church, Prescott Memorial, for having hired a woman pastor. “It’s bizarre for people to call themselves Christian and act this way,” Mrs. Sehested says.

Many employees have been purged at denominational publications. “There’s been a conscious attempt by Paul Pressler and others to intimidate the {Southern Baptist} media,” says Wilmer C. Fields, a 28-year employee who recently retired as vice president of public relations for the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee. He also directed the Baptist Press news agency, where, he says, fundamentalists two years ago forced a full investigation of their allegations of liberal bias, only to be rebuffed by a committee of journalism professors. Now there is talk of putting the agency through another review, this one before the fundamentalist-controlled executive committee.


After a century of anger issues that no longer fit with contemporary realities, some Southern Baptists decided that the hate needed to stay, but needed to be redirected at “liberals” and “abortionists.” Which brings us to the sad irony of this long weekend:

Influential Christian leaders look for consensus candidate to stop Romney

By Wayne Slater/Reporter
The Dallas Morning News
4:49 PM on Wed., Jan. 4, 2012

Some of the nation’s leading religious conservative leaders are gathering this weekend in Texas in an effort to consolidate a fractured GOP electorate around a single presidential candidate who best expresses their views. “One thing unites all in this group – Romney is not their guy,” said one of the participants, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The meeting at Brenham ranch of Paul Pressler, a former Texas judge and influential Southern Baptist, is part of an ongoing effort to unite social conservatives around a single candidate….

Now, some feel manipulated. Hmmm.

Conservatives feud over Santorum endorsement
Some say Texas weekend gathering manipulated
By Ralph Z. Hallow-The Washington Times
Monday, January 16, 2012

In an evolving power struggle, religious conservatives are feuding about whether a weekend meeting in Texas yielded a consensus that former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is the best bet to stop Mitt Romney’s drive for the Republican presidential nomination.

A leading evangelical and former aide to President George H.W. Bush said he agreed with suspicions voiced by others at the meeting of evangelical and conservative Catholic activists that organizers “manipulated” the gathering and may even have stuffed the ballot to produce an endorsement of Mr. Santorum over former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Mr. Santorum, who nearly upset Mr. Romney in the Iowa caucuses, won the first ballot ahead of Mr. Gingrich in Saturday’s Texas meeting but the margin was too slim for organizers to claim a consensus. It was not until the third ballot, taken after many people had left to catch flights back home, that Mr. Santorum won more than 70 percent of those still in attendance and claimed the endorsement….

It seems almost the antithesis of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life. Then, religious Baptists, men of conscience, stood non-violently to change an unjust government. Here, a Texas judge stood to sweep all tolerance from his denomination, Southern Baptists, and now his multi-denominational collaborators meet in secret at his ranch to sweep all tolerance from a just government.

Ozymandias 2011

Not “Ozymandias,” perhaps, but a more imminent and intimate tragedy.

We have to live here.



A writer, published author, novelist, literary critic and political observer for a quarter of a quarter-century more than a quarter-century, Hart Williams has lived in the American West for his entire life. Having grown up in Wyoming, Kansas and New Mexico, a survivor of Texas and a veteran of Hollywood, Mr. Williams currently lives in Oregon, along with an astonishing amount of pollen. He has a lively blog His Vorpal Sword. This is cross-posted from his blog.

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About Hart Williams

Mr. Williams grew up in Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and New Mexico. He lived in Hollywood, California for many years. He has been published in The Washington Post, The Kansas City Star, The Santa Fe Sun, The Los Angeles Free Press, Oui Magazine, New West, and many, many more. A published novelist and a filmed screenwriter, Mr. Williams eschews the decadence of Hollywood for the simple, wholesome goodness of the plain, honest people of the land. He enjoys Luis Buñuel documentaries immensely.
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