How Rev. King’s Summer of Discontent Reflects Our Own

58 years before last summer’s national reckoning on race a pastor in Atlanta, Georgia reflecting on a summer of protests referred to it as a monumental “summer of discontent.” For many Christians in the pulpit and in the pews, summer 2020 is our summer of discontent and our moment to collectively commit to being Christian anti-racists. It is also a time to divest our energy from responding to the criticisms we receive from evangelicals who decry our engagement with racial justice as unbiblical.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the Letter From a Birmingham Jail in response to white clergy who similarly rebuked his protests and demands for social justice:

In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other-worldy religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and secular.

He could have written those same words today to the white evangelical church. Ironically, the same pastors and churches who celebrate King’s legacy still hold to the “unbiblical distinction” which rejects racial and economic issues as things “which the gospel has no real concern.” But in the summer of 2020, waves of Christians hit the streets and sounded a clarion call demanding justice on biblical grounds. Black and Brown churches, which have embraced social justice as part of God’s calling for the church for generations stepped up to lead in the wake of a series of events that, similar to the past, woke the church from its social justice slumber.

Compelled by the Scriptures clear call to “do justice” (Micah 6:8) and to live out “religion that is pure and undefiled” (James 1:27), this movement refuses to settle for a gospel that ignores the mandate to pursue the kingdom of God “on Earth as it is in Heaven.” What is that kingdom if it’s not a reality in which Black lives matter, and are zealously defended as possessing intrinsic worth as the image of God? In New York City, #PrayMarchAct began as ZION NYC and the Bridge Church decided to march for justice. Quickly what began as two churches became over 100 and 5,000 people peacefully, prayerfully protesting. A new movement was sparked that day which has led to churches throughout New York and in other states marching and working for justice. The time has come for the church to commit to repenting of America’s ‘original sin’ which must include leveraging its collective influence to be antiracist and committed to racial and economic justice. None of this is new, but the gravity of the moment, the events of 2020 once again gave rise to a new urgency.

In his landmark work Why We Can’t Wait, King memorialized the unique urgency that shocked the nation in the summer of 1963 as the Civil Rights Movement built incredible momentum. Of that summer he wrote:

White America was forced to face the ugly facts of life as the Negro thrust himself into the consciousness of the country, and dramatized his grievances on a thousand brightly lighted stages.

Once again, in 2020, “white America was forced to face the ugly facts of life” that, too often, in our nation’s institutions and structures, Black lives don’t matter. In January 2020, the coronavirus reached American shores with devastating consequences which revealed inequalities in our healthcare system. As the coronavirus has spread over the past year, America has grieved over 400,000 deaths, Black and Brown populations suffered disproportionately. In fact, APM Research released noted: “Black and Indigenous Americans continue to suffer the highest rates of loss — with both groups now experiencing a COVID-19 death toll exceeding 1 in 750 nationally.”

On March 13, 2020, as the coronavirus was disproportionately killing Black people, and medical professionals were being lauded as heroes, we were reminded we were in the midst of another, much older, pandemic. In Louisville, Kentucky, EMT Breonna Taylor’s body was riddled with eight bullets as police opened fire in “the wrong house.” In their police report they would list under injuries “None.” Their neglectful silence on her injuries reflected the silence that often accompanies the death of Black women from Atatiana Jefferson to Rekia Boyd to Sandra Bland. Clearly, to the officers who wrote the report, Breonna Taylor’s life didn’t matter.

On May 15th, while the economy nosedived and Black unemployment rates, historically twice that of white America, soared to 16%, video of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, leaked. We watched in horror as retired police office, George McMichael and his son Travis, executed a barbaric, human hunting expedition that ended with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. The cover up of the video evidence by the district attorney’s office demonstrated that his life didn’t matter to the authorities.

And on May 25th, after two months of “sheltering in place,” cabin fever in the United States hit an all time high. Many looked to Memorial Day, the traditional start to summer rhythms, as an opportunity to take a collective breath and enjoy life for a day. Perhaps with that in mind, George Floyd, who had recently moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota to drive trucks and eventually send for his family, decided to buy cigarettes at a grocery store. What unfolded in the moments after awakened a nation to a renewed urgency. A nation watched in horror as police officer Derek Chauvin stoically knelt on the neck of George Floyd with his hands in his pocket for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, squeezing the life out of this black man while he pleaded: “I can’t breathe.” Instead of a collective breather for summer, we took a collective gasp in horror.

This race towards justice is a marathon and not a sprint. We have had summers of discontent in the past that held the promise of a new day, and provided some change but not enough. After all, Dr. King wrote of the summer of 1963:

No period in American history, save the Civil War and the Reconstruction, records such breadth and depth to the Negro’s drive to alter his life. No period records so many thaws in the frozen patterns of segregation.

We see this in the historic passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. President John F. Kennedy had first proposed the Act in June 1963, but the Senate successfully blocked its passing. But then the Summer of Discontent happened which was catalyzed by the assassination of Medgar Evers June 12th, and reached its zenith on August 28th March on Washington where Dr. King delivered the most famous speech of the 20th century. And yet, there was still much left for us to do. The criminal injustice system needs to not simply be reformed by re-imagined. The pattern of criminal killings of black people is the symptom of far greater issues. Too often we criminalize mental health, drug addiction, homelessness and even protest. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the inequalities in our healthcare system. The move to online education necessitated by coronavirus quarantine mandates have revealed the academic inequalities and disparities that exist along racial lines. The church must engage in anti-racism work that impacts every aspect of society in the name of Jesus.

If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. — MLK

Those words would prove prophetic. The Barna Group, which studies faith trends, has reported that one-third fewer Americans attend church services than did in the 1990’s and that number was a precipitous decline from the 1960’s when King wrote. What are the reasons for this drop off? Well, of course it’s multi-layered, but in his landmark book, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church, David Kinnaman, the president of the Barna Group gives us a key factor. He surveyed over hundreds of youth and young adults and discovered that one of the six major reasons listed was that the church instruction was “shallow.” In particular, only 20% had served the poor in church and a dismal 15% “found a cause or issue that motivated them.” Contrast that with a report that listed “Civil Rights/Racial Justice” as the number one cause millennials care about and see the clear fulfillment of what King announced 57 years ago. Not only is antiracism work necessary for living out the gospel of the kingdom in a racially stratified society, it is also work that must be done to reach a generation which has lost confidence in the church’s relevance.

I’m grateful to be part of the And Campaign. The And Campaign’s mission is “To educate and organize Christians for civic and cultural engagement that results in better representation, more just and compassionate policies and a healthier political culture.” The landmark book, Conviction (&) Compassion has charted a solid course for the way forward.

I’m also honored to serve with #PrayMarchAct. PMA is a movement committed to equipping and mobilizing Christian anti-racists to promote personal and church wide commitment to systemic justice through dismantling racism one church at a time.

What will be the results of this Summer of Discontent? How will we live out Dr. King’s legacy in 2021? Fortunately, that’s a history we get to write right now. I for one hope and plan for summer 2020 echoes into the ages, just like summer 1963. Will you join us in making history?



Enjoys food, hip-hop, sports, culture & theophanies.

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