Panelists included men who had a thorough knowledge, and in some cases experience, of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Dr. Terril Littrell set the scene following moderator Tyrone Richmond’s opening remarks.
“There was lack of unity in the black community at this time. Dr. King did not get the support he needed all during his ministry,” Littrell said.
“Many black people feared for their lives. They thanked God for their jobs, went home, ate supper with their family, pulled down their blinds and prayed their home would not get bombed.”
Littrell was a white clergy member and supporter of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. He peppered in his personal experiences into his responses throughout the panel.
Fellow activist John Edwards, a 90-year-old African American, also provided first-person accounts of the movement.
Every man held King and his work in high respect.
Dr. Carl Ellis explained to the audience the importance of the letter written on April 16, 1963.
“This letter for the Civil Rights Movement would be like the book of Romans for the New Testament,” Ellis said. “It was the definitive philosophy and theology behind the whole Civil Rights Movement.”
He continued by saying the movement was powerful, because it dramatized the sermon on the mount.
“This is something we all need to remember: the more righteous a movement, the more powerful the movement,” Ellis said before turning back to the letter. “So what Dr. King does here is give us an application of basic goodwill principles that did not come to light from the perspective of the dominant culture.”
To find oppression or injustice, according to the panel, it is important to view society through the eyes of the subdominant culture.
Professor David Holt provided a biblical parallel to not only King, but also the dominant and subdominant culture.
He said King’s experience was in some ways like King David’s from the Bible as seen in 1 Samuel.
“In the beginning of the Samuel books, there were priests in the land, and they were corrupt. There were leaders, but there were no real judges,” Holt said. “They were all corrupt, and it says there were no prophecy in the land.”
Holt continued, “All the rest of David’s life is compensating for all of those lacks, inadequacies, and you can see the corruption of Hebrew civilization right there.”
King’s letter was in response to an earlier letter written by eight Alabama clergymen urging the public to restrain from joining the movement.
Richmond took a moment to read some excerpts from the clergymen’s original letter.
“We are among those who in January issued for an appeal in law and order in common sense in dealing with the racial problems in Alabama ... Since that time, there have been increased forbearance and unwillingness to face the facts. Responsible citizens have undertaken to work on various problems which cause racial friction and unrest,” Richmond read. “We are convinced these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.”
The clergymen urged the public to seek out justice in the courts. Until justice could be found, they suggested the population abide by the current laws.
Panelists said there was a key problem with the clergy’s plan: the courts were “crooked.” The unjust courts threatened the gospel of freedom proposed by King.
Edwards said the gospel of freedom is comprehensive. He explained God intends for man to be free, and King being a biblical scholar would have known this.
Ellis proposed true freedom “is not the freedom to do what I want, it is the power to do what is right.”
He said unjust laws take away the power to do right.
The conversation shifted to a closer look at today’s society and issues.
Littrell stated King’s “I have a Dream” speech has never been fully realized. He said institutional racism still exists today.
Ellis suggested even if racism disappeared, society would still face many of the same issues.
“Yes, there is racism and all the rest of that, but it is not as bad as it used to be, because if it was as bad as it used to be, there would be someone else living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. However, it is not all gone,” Ellis said. “It is a cultural crisis. Across the board, our value systems, the principles we live by, are getting worse and worse.”
The panelists agreed society has serious issues, and it is up to the church to create the change.
“The church is weak today because of division, internal strife and denominational walls being built,” Littrell said. “We need to tear down the walls so we can have peace and understanding with one another. We need to do the work of God.”
Ellis agreed saying the church can make a difference, but the church needs to be a church again.
“It is doable,” Ellis said.
Richmond chose another quote as a final word from King as the panel wrapped up.
“Yes, I love the church,” wrote King in ‘63. “How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.”