By Barbara Reynolds
“Many of us have been indicted, arrested and our homes bombed, but when we stand before the Negro population at prayer meetings, we can repeat that it is an honor to face jail for a just cause.”
If only those words of just causes and sacrifices of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the actions of thousands of others — both black and white — had seared the souls of the black preachers who met with President Donald Trump last week. They could not have praised a man who has vulgarly demeaned women, executed a policy locking brown kids into cages and labeled black African homelands as “s—holes.”
Yet their skunk-like presence could not have hit so hard, if more of the authentic preachers who fancy themselves as moral leaders had stood up forcibly to the obscenity of the Trump brand. In the vacuum of leadership, the skunk-like pastors just walked into the tea party, became intoxicated by having a seat at the table and left a smelly scent over just causes of black communities.
The meeting was organized by Pastor Paula White, a white evangelical Trump supporter, to discuss prison reform but made no mention of the racial injustice that fuels it nor why black football players protesting the broken criminal justice system are called SOBs by the president.
No dissent was voiced as one pastor praised Trump as one of the most “pro-black” presidents and belittled Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president.
While King’s name was bandied about in the meeting, the ministers should have emulated him by speaking forcefully as moral leaders with an agenda that should have included taking Trump to task for his consistent disparaging of black leaders, such as CNN’s Don Lemon, Rep. Maxine Waters and LeBron James as dumb or low-IQ individuals. While this character assassination may energize his base, it also helps make black Americans vulnerable to hateful acts of harassment and discrimination.
King and his disciples, often had a seat at the table, meeting with presidents, but they were accountable to those who depended upon them to address their pain. In high-level meetings, the King aides worked to control the content of the agenda, searching for a win-win position. Only if that failed did direct action of boycotts and or marches follow.
No better model of the King non-violent methods was a meeting with President John F. Kennedy, which resulted in the 1963 March on Washington after the president did not agree to forcibly press Congress to pass a strong federal civil rights bill. JFK’s initial reaction reportedly was that the march was ill-timed, but the movement leaders decided there is no right time for injustice.
The march resulted in the bill signed into law on July 2, 1964.
The movement’s model for speaking truth to power did not end with King’s assassination in 1968. Coretta Scott King, his widow, continued having a seat at the table and challenging unjust human rights policies. One incident, she recalled in my recent memoir of her, “Coretta, My Life, My Love, My Legacy,” involved her taking Richard Nixon to task.
“As a coalition leader, I had made several trips to the Nixon White House to further our human rights agenda. Not only did Nixon refuse to implement any of our policy requests, he also blocked funds for construction of the King Center, which we were building to carry on my husband’s non-violent domestic programs, which the nation sorely needed. While I went out of my way not to be offensive, at a press conference I strongly criticized him for playing to a southern strategy that denounced black people via coded language and negative stereotyping.”
Like many other civil rights leaders of her ilk, Coretta King felt she had a moral obligation when she walked into the corridors of power to speak for the disenfranchised and to challenge rather than cheerlead unjust causes in order to keep her seat at the table.
Probably it was Rosa Parks, the seamstress and NAACP secretary whose arrest launched the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and the modern civil rights movement, who summed up the proper role for moral leaders and what motivated her not to follow orders and move to the back of the bus.
“It was a matter of dignity. I could not have faced myself or my people, if I had moved.”
The Trump preachers apparently march to a different beat, but despite their failings they are only part of the problem because some black church leaders and major civil rights groups, who carry weight in the black community, have not raised their voices loud enough or cemented a strategy to counter the abuses of Trump and the Republican leaders who protect him.
So, what happens when there is silence among the righteous? The ugly truths have a party and convince themselves of their greatness.
Barbara Reynolds is an ordained minister, educator and columnist for USA Today. She is the author of seven books, including the award-winning memoirs of Coretta Scott King, which was published in paperback this year.