Religion Is the Heart of the Civil Rights Movement

As the nation celebrates the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Cornerstone asks contributors about the role of religion in King's civil rights effort. Moreover, we ask to what extent African-American leaders today continue to advance civil rights through religion. 

By: Alveda C. King

"But let judgment roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream." - Amos 5:24  

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted this powerful scripture in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. He believed God's word. He took his Bible—the one President Obama placed his hand on during his 2013 inauguration—very seriously; so seriously that he repeatedly risked his life to proclaim its message of love for God and love for neighbor. 

My Uncle M.L., like everyone, was far from perfect, but he loved the Lord. It was God's word that he used to unite a movement and change our nation. For him, religion was the heart of the civil rights movement. 

As his niece, and the daughter of his slain brother, Rev. A. D. King, I am always honored when invited to remember him. 

Uncle M.L. was born on January 15, 1929. In remembering him today, I can tell you that he was a kind and gentle man who was used as a strong prophet of God. 

Many people called him the "Black Moses" and the "Modern Day Apostle of Love." As a Baptist preacher, his sermons and speeches reflected his devotion to the Lord and his obedience to God's call. The themes of his teachings strongly reflected humanity’s need of God's love and of human repentance and forgiveness. 

We could use some repentance and forgiveness right now in our shattered society. A black man was elected twice to the White House, but racism has not been erased. The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others remind us that black men and teens, in particular, are still pre-judged by the color of their skin. 

In a 1967 speech Uncle M.L. gave at Stanford University, he spoke of the “other America” and the “daily ugliness” that greets some people of color every day. He would be proud of the many advances and achievements we have logged in the human rights category, but he would still be troubled that so many still live in this “other America.” 

There was much speculation about whether or not Uncle M.L. would have taken part in protest marches in Missouri, New York, or elsewhere, and he very well might have. But he would never advocate for violence, and he would never walk arm-in-arm with anyone calling for attacks on the police. 

His message was one of love and non-violence, and I know it would not have changed in the time between his death and now, because he followed the word of God, and the word of God never changes. 

I do know that he would be disturbed—and vocal—about our constantly eroding freedom of religion. Everywhere you look, if the exercise of religion bumps up against a liberal absolute, religion loses. 

President Obama has made it a priority to prevent Americans from conceiving children, and when people of faith rise up in protest to this contraceptive mandate, we are accused of waging a war on women. 

Forty-two years after Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton made abortion legal, half of America clings hard to the belief that women cannot be equal to men without being able to exercise their right to kill their own children. But people of faith who don’t want to have the blood of innocents on their hands—healthcare workers most prominently, but others as well—are finding that they have to defend their conscience rights, and sometimes, they lose. 

When members of the pro-life black community tell the truth about abortion—that the most dangerous place for an African-American is in the womb—we are accused of racism! The people who target us for annihilation through abortion are praised as heroes. What an upside down world! 

The growing controversies surrounding First Amendment religious and freedom of speech rights are reaching a fever pitch. But we must continue to do what we are instructed in 1 Corinthians 16:13-14: “Be on guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong. And do everything with love.” 

We must work hard to remember and remind those who seem to have forgotten that in all matters of conflict, love, dignity, clarity and communication are key, even when viewpoints differ. Especially when viewpoints differ.

As my Uncle M.L. famously said, "We must learn to live together as brothers [and sisters] or perish as fools."


Dr. Alveda King currently serves as a pastoral associate and director of African-American outreach for Priests for Life and Gospel of Life Ministries.

This piece was originally authored on January 19, 2015 for the Daily Signal under the title "Niece of Martin Luther King Jr: 'Racism Has Not Been Erased.'" It was then republished on January 20, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

Permanent Link: https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/cornerstone/2016/7/7/religion-is-the-heart-of-the-civil-rights-movement