I write this post today in honor of the memory of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When I have conversations with secular activists and activist Christians who have fallen away from their faith, I become very thankful for Rev. King. Thousands (probably millions) of social justice minded individuals in the world today have rejected Christianity because of the way in which it has been misrepresented over the centuries by countries and people who said they believed in Jesus but who went ahead and segregated people based upon the color of their skin. I love pointing to Rev. King as an example of a follower of Jesus who challenged this misrespresentation of Christianity in the United States for the world, and generations, to see. As a prophet of God, he told America that segregation was unbiblical and that “Jim Crow” was a violation of God’s truth.
“Jim Crow” refers to the historical time period in between the abolition of slavery in 1876 and the official dismantling of legal segregation in the United States in 1965. During the era of Jim Crow, white society in America felt that it had the moral and legal right to segregate African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, South Asian Americans, and others, from itself. This segregation was complete from cradle to the grave. It involved housing, education, health care, public spaces like parks, pools, restaurants, movie theaters, and hiking trails, and even mortuaries and cemeteries! If you were Latino in Pasadena during this time period, for example, you were even restricted in the days you could enjoy God’s mountains! As part of Jim Crow, laws banning racial intermarriage remained legal on a national level until 1967. Can you imagine what it was like to live in America during this time period? It makes me so sick to even think about it.
What makes me even more sad was that the vast majority of Christians remained silent during the battle to end segregation in the United States. Even worse, some Christians actually twisted sacred Scripture to justify racial segregation. Thankfully, there were very notable exceptions of Christians who stood side by side with Rev. King and denounced Jim Crow segregation as unbiblical and antithetical to the message of Jesus Christ. Under the leadership of Rev. King, they preached the simple biblical message that all humans beings are created equally in the image of God (Genesis 1:27, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them”), and are therefore worthy of equal treatment in all aspects of U.S. society.
On this MLK Day, I celebrate this amazing legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, a follower of Jesus, who, together with millions of other lesser-known but no less important revolutionaries, brilliantly upended Jim Crow segregation in the Name of Jesus Christ. As we celebrate the second inauguration of our first Black president today, I imagine that Rev. King must be smiling from heaven. I know I am.
Although “de jure” (legal) segregation ended some 48 years ago in the U.S., “de facto” (in fact) racial segregation is still prevalent today. Jim Crow segregation produced unequal conditions of housing, education, health care, legal services, etc., which have not gone away despite the official end to segregation in the 1960’s. Jim Crow segregation produced segregated neighborhoods, schools, health care systems, etc., which have continued to replicate themselves to the present day.
Public schools attended by millions of beautiful brown and black children are vastly inferior to those in rich suburban neighborhoods within the same school district. These same children and their families lack access to quality, affordable health care and legal services, and have few parks and safe public spaces in which to play and just be a kid. The majority of Latinos and African Americans in the United States today continue to experience the invidious lingering effects of Jim Crow segregation.
Lest you think I’m just some radical ethnic studies professor and liberation theology pastor, let’s take a look at some staggering statistics which bear this out: 1 out of every 3 valid legal claims of the poor in California is never heard in court because no attorney will take their case (because they can’t afford to pay); stated another way, 2/3 of the legal services needs of the poor are unmet in this state and it would require $394,100,000 per year to close this profound “justice gap.”
To make matters worse, 16 million kids currently live in poverty in the United States. With regards to educational access, 8% of low-income students graduate from college sometime within their lifetime vs. 87% of students from affluent communities who will graduate from college by the age of 24. Out of every 100 Chican@ students who begin elementary school, only 8 will graduate from college, 2 will go on to earn a graduate or professional school degree, and less than 1 will earn a doctorate! Sadly, similar statistics can be reported for African Americans. In 2005-2006, only 47% of African American male students graduated from high school. In 2007, only 56% of African American high school graduates went on to attend college, and in that same year the college graduation rate for African Americans was only 42%.
As for healthcare, close to 50 million people are currently uninsured in the United States. 1 in 4 children go without healthcare in our country, and more than 23 million kids go without adequate healthcare in any given year. About 30 percent of Latino and 20 percent of African American children lack a regular source of health care, and brown kids are almost 3 times more likely than white kids to lack sufficient healthcare.
Millions of Chican@s, Latin@s, African Americans, Native Americans, and others, are still segregated from equal opportunity in the United States. As followers of Jesus we have an affirmative obligation to advocate on their behalf and to work in His name to transform the inequitable socio-economic and political policies and structures which reinforce this exclusion. If we don’t, then history, and, most importantly, God, will judge us. Let’s learn from the mistakes of the millions of Christians, who, half a decade before us, failed to speak up against Jim Crow segregation. Let’s follow the example of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who, though an imperfect man, sounded a magnificent clarion call for biblical equality in Jesus’ Name.
Robert Chao Romero