By BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler

On April 4, we mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

King was a modern-day prophet who led a movement for seismic societal change; he fought bravely, nonviolently and sacrificially for freedom and racial and economic justice. It’s important, as we rightly reflect on all he did to improve this nation in his too-short life, also to consider all that is left to be done to fulfill his legacy. 

As we remember, we should not omit the important role that religious liberty played in his ministry. Religious liberty is a bedrock American value that has allowed dissidents — including King — the freedom and autonomy to fight for the causes of their consciences. Like the foundation of a building, we can take religious freedom for granted until it starts to crack and crumble. Without it, the entire structure of our free society would fall. I think we can fairly say that without religious liberty, the Civil Rights Movement would not have been possible.

The institutional separation of church and state provided King a platform from which to preach, organize and lead. The Progressive National Baptist Convention — a supporting body of the BJC for the past 47 years — was King’s denominational home from 1964, and he spoke at every annual session until his death.

King knew the power of an independent church to effect change. As he wrote in Strength to Love, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”

In the past year, we’ve seen some opponents of the “Johnson Amendment” tell untruths to make a political point. Those looking to eviscerate the protections in the current law have at times pointed to King and other religious leaders of the Civil Rights Movement as pastors speaking out on political issues, arguing that their speech would be censored now by the IRS. I am always puzzled by these examples. The requirement that 501(c)(3) organizations not engage in partisan campaign activity was added to the tax code in 1954 — more than a year before the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Nothing in that law prevented the prophetic speech of King and others, and it does not prevent pastors today from speaking out on moral and political issues.

But, King very intentionally declined to endorse candidates in his official capacity. In October 1960, King was arrested in Atlanta at a student-led sit-in and jailed in a maximum security state prison — a dangerous and possibly deadly place for him to be. John F. Kennedy, then the Democratic nominee for president, called both Georgia Gov. Ernest Vandiver and King’s wife, Coretta, to express his concern. Within hours, King was released.

Many wondered if King would express his gratitude to Kennedy with an endorsement. A week before the election, King made it clear in a statement that he would not endorse, both because he served as the “titular head” of the nonpartisan Southern Christian Leadership Conference and because of how partisanship would impede his ministry. “The role that is mine in the emerging social order of the South and America demands that I remain nonpartisan. … [D]evoid of partisan political attachments, I am free to be critical of both parties when necessary,” he wrote. Perhaps he also knew the divisive impact an official endorsement might have on the diverse coalition he was building for the movement. King needed to unite many in an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. He did so, mobilizing a generation for action and inspiring future generations of activists to the present day.

King simultaneously made statements indicating his private support for Kennedy, as pastors and other nonprofit leaders can do without jeopardizing the tax-exempt status of their organizations. Kennedy’s religion was a factor for many voters, but King said, “I never intend to be a religious bigot. I never intend to reject a man running for President of the United States just because he is a Catholic. Religious bigotry is as immoral, un-democratic, un-American and un-Christian as racial bigotry.”

King understood that defending religious liberty was critical to protecting civil rights, and that an independent and inclusive church could change the world through social action. This lesson is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago, as we seek to do the work required to make his rhetorical “dream” for harmony across our divisions a reality.

This article appeared in the March/April 2018 edition of Report from the Capital. You can also read the digital version of the magazine or view it as a PDF.