Fifty years after Marin Luther King Jr. spoke in Montreat’s auditorium, almost 1,000 participants have gathered to remember King’s message and consider how the church of today is called to address racial divisions and continue his work. Dr. King’s Unfinished Agenda: A Teach-In for Rededicating Ourselves to the Dream is being held August 21-23 at Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina.
On Saturday, August 22, Charles Blow addressed the conference to speak about the new civil rights movement. Blow is a columnist on politics, public opinion and social justice for the New York Times; a commentator for CNN; and the author of the 2014 New York Times bestselling memoir “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.” Blow recalled King’s challenging words to his Montreat audience 50 years ago: The law may not be able to change hearts, but it can constrain the darkness. The law may not make you love me, but it may keep you from lynching me. Blow says these words of King’s are important to remember, lest “we flatten him” and only pick favorable pieces that tend to be the least revolutionary.
As the church engages in conversation and action on civil rights and racial reconciliation, Blow stressed the need consider the fullness of King’s historic message while also embracing the newness of the emerging of civil rights movement springing forth from young activists. Here are three points from Blow’s address at Montreat:
- Recognize how different today’s young activists are from the generation that came before them. Blow did not experience the civil rights movement firsthand – he’s 45 years old. He says growing up it was “more academic for me than experiential.” Today’s civil rights movement – which he sees as more of an “awakening” – is made up of new people who will have different tactics and a different tenor. The challenge and calling, he said, will be for the older generation to impart lessons to the young activists, not dictate practices.
- Equality must be won by every generation; it will never be freely granted. Each generation’s experience and reaction will be different in the fight for equality, Blow said and then received applause saying, “You cannot talk to someone born 20 years ago who is protesting a death from one year ago about what you did 50 years ago and think that is sufficient!” He encouraged the younger generations to participate in ongoing struggle against systemic racism, giving example after example from recent headlines proclaiming police violence against blacks. (Of note, during this plenary session, two armed police officers stood on duty at entrances to the auditorium. No public announcement has been made regarding their presence.) The struggle is real but important, Blow said, “I know the frustration of swimming against the current, rather than being carried by it.”
- The culture has been “baptized in bias.” During the questions-and-answers segment following Blow’s talk, he was asked how public servants can ensure they do not become complicit with systems of racism. “Until we realize that we have been conditioned and trained and baptized in bias,” necessary steps cannot be taken to consciously search oneself and ensure that one is not perpetuating bias. Blow pressed listeners to examine their spheres of influence and try to operate in that sphere. “That is where you are most powerful, because that is where you are most intimate.”