What You Need to Read During Black History Month
Commentary by Marvin Olasky | Religion Unplugged
Many readers are familiar with the civil rights contributions of Martin Luther King Jr. and may also know that the organization he led was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Some may be less knowledgeable about what made King a profile in courage.
Jonathan Eig’s “King: A Life” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023) shows how King, a seminary student and then a doctoral recipient at Boston University, developed an intellectual, abstract appreciation of God. His heart changed in 1955 when King, then a 26-year-old pastor, became the leader of a movement to integrate buses in Montgomery, Alabama.
He had a sense of God’s presence and told an enthusiastic audience in a packed church, “If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to earth.” King later called the day of that speech, Dec. 5, “the day of days.”
Soon after that day, King faced death threats from segregationists. He returned home from one meeting around midnight and answered the phone. He heard an angry threat: “If you’re not out of town in three days we’re going to blow your brains out.” Unable to sleep, he walked the floors of his parsonage. That’s when, King said, God spoke to him, saying, “Preach the Gospel, stand up for the truth, stand up for righteousness.”
Eig writes, “From that moment on, King said, he possessed no fear. He would not back down. He would die if he had to, but he would not turn back.”
Eig does not back down from exploring King’s life past his high point, the Aug. 28, 1963, “March on Washington” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. He tried to take the civil rights movement to Chicago and other northern cities and faced great resistance. He opposed the U.S. war in Vietnam and lost support.
Clint Smith’s “How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America” (Little, Brown, 2021) offers a street-level view of seven sites important in the slavery annals: Monticello, the Whitney plantation and Angola prison in Louisiana, the Blandford Cemetery in Virginia, and three islands (Galveston, Texas; Gorée, Senegal; and Manhattan). Smith gives each a chapter filled with evocative detail, stimulating conversation and his own historical analysis.
Smith portrays people learning more and realizing that honoring the old South is wrong. The Whitney plantation now portrays the evil of slavery. Smith shows the heart of current Whitney owner John Cummings expanded as he learned how earlier owners exploited and brutalized slaves: “That’s when I realized I could not have this property and make it a tourist attraction that would glorify a life of people who exploited human beings. Couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t.”
Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who was the paramount Black leader of the 19th century, wrote three terrific autobiographies: The second, titled ”My Bondage and My Freedom” (1855) is probably the best. It’s been recently reprinted at least eight times, according to what Amazon shows (2010, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2022).
Douglass was deeply spiritual but had bad experiences with White Christians. His owner, Master Thomas, displayed “all the cruelty and meanness, after his conversion, which he had exhibited before he made a profession of religion.” Later, Douglass attended a Methodist church in Massachusetts where the minister said, “God is no respecter of persons” — but the church had segregated seating and communion.
Christopher Ehret’s “Ancient Africa” (Princeton University Press, 2023) undercuts the conventional academic idea that monotheism emerged only in the past 3,000 years. Ehret shows that two major groups of African cultures — Niger-Congo and Nilo-Saharan — were monotheistic thousands of years earlier. The Bible starts with “In the beginning,” and people in west Africa in the sixth millennium B.C. believed in a Creator they called Nyambe, a name derived from a verb meaning, “to begin.”
Nilo-Saharan people in the eastern Sahara also had a monotheistic belief, but in a Spirit Force rather than a being. They identified God with the sky, rain and often lightning. They sometimes asked for help from particular spirits, yet understood those spirits to be not distinct beings but particular manifestations of the overall divinity.
Briefly noted: Claude Atcho’s “Reading Black Books” (Brazos, 2022) discerningly introduces readers to Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, James Baldwin and others. Nicholas Dawidoff’s “The Other Side of Prospect” (Norton, 2022) follows a young Black man wrongly convicted of murder because he was a convenient scapegoat from New Haven’s poorest neighborhood.
George Yancey’s “Beyond Racial Division: A Unifying Alternative to Colorblindness and Antiracism” (IVP, 2022) is a Christian look at how to listen more. Yancey, a Black professor at Baylor, recognizes that both hectoring about racism and claims of “colorblindness” provoke resistance rather than understanding.
Marvin Olasky, editor in chief of World from 1992 to 2021, reviews books on religion here and books on other subjects at Discovery Institute’s Olasky Books Newsletter.
The views expressed in this opinion column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of FāVS News. FāVS News values diverse perspectives and thoughtful analysis on matters of faith and spirituality.