What The Civil Rights Movement Of The '60s Can Teach Atlanta Protesters Now

Jun 3, 2020
Originally published on June 3, 2020 10:25 pm

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was behind the pulpit in Atlanta in 1967, the year before he was killed, when he told churchgoers at Ebenezer Baptist Church that sometimes there is an "obligation" to break certain man-made laws.

"It is important to see that there are times when a man-made law is out of harmony with the moral law of the universe, there are times when human law is out of harmony with eternal and divine laws," the civil rights leader said at the time. "And when that happens, you have an obligation to break it."

More than 50 years after his death, King's words still carry visceral power, and they've taken on renewed significance throughout the demonstrations across the nation in response to the killing of George Floyd. On Sunday, King's successor at Ebenezer Baptist, the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, delivered his own sermon with a similar message.

"For folk who claim to be godly, for church folk, for preachers who darken somebody's pulpit every weekend to be silent while this is happening, it is not only to be on the wrong side of history," Warnock said from the pulpit. "It is not only to be on the wrong side of the issue. I submit it is to be on the wrong side of God."

On Wednesday, Warnock sat down with NPR to reflect on King's legacy, Floyd's death and the civil unrest gripping his city and the nation.


Interview Highlights

On what it was like to deliver the Sunday sermon from King's former pulpit while the tensions are so high across Atlanta

I'll tell you what it was like. It was like when I preached the Sunday after Michael Brown's death and the Sunday I preached after Sandra Bland's death. And Tamir Rice's death. And Trayvon Martin's death. And here we are. The death of George Floyd, as tragic as it is, and it's tragic, it is a flashpoint of a deeper systemic issue in our country. Namely, mass incarceration. And until we get serious about reinvesting in our people rather than investing in prisons, sadly, I'm going to have to keep preaching that same sermon over and over again.

On his urging for peaceful protests and the debate over whether another approach is needed

I think that part of the problem is that we romanticize and we don't quite remember what the civil rights movement looked like. I think some 50 and more years later, we tend to imagine the civil rights movement as a time when men like Martin Luther King Jr. and women like Ella Baker, they knew exactly what to do and they just showed up on the scene, and they did it and all of the sudden we got a civil rights bill and a voting rights bill. It was more complicated than that. ... You had the Martin Luther King Jrs. of the world and you had the Stokely Carmichaels of the world. There's always been this creative tension about how to get the change, but I think to their credit, most of the young people that I see protesting in Atlanta are doing so peacefully.

On how to reconcile the slogan, "Atlanta, the city too busy to hate," with the current moment

Atlanta is a magical place. I just want to make sure that our city and our state and our country is not too busy to love, and justice is what love looks like in public. And it takes time, it takes resources and it takes money. ... It takes new laws to love. And I think that's what this moment is calling for.

On running for the U.S. Senate

I'm running for the United States Senate, and it comes as part of my long life commitment to freedom and to justice making in the world. We are witnessing in this time, really we are beset by two viruses: COVID-19 and COVID-1619 ... 1619, the year that 50 or more Africans who had been enslaved arrived on the shores of Jamestown, and since that moment we have been dealing as a country with this virus, and we thought that we had solved it after the Civil War, but it mutated into Jim Crow segregation. We thought the civil rights movement vaccinated us against us, but then we got the new Jim Crow, as Michelle Alexander calls it, the mass incarceration and the age of color blindness. So these flashpoints are a consequence of the criminalization of black bodies and general brown bodies and general black male bodies in particular, and that's what we're wrestling with this week.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We were out on the street here in Atlanta covering the protests when a young woman approached - dark skin, dark hair, braids. She told us her name is Wolfgang (ph), and she's 23. And then she leaned into our mics and started to rap.

WOLFGANG: (Rapping) Man, I thought we closed this chapter when the King died. But I guess they'll always see us as some slaves traumatized. Man, RIP, George, man.

KELLY: When the King died, meaning Martin Luther King Jr. - not 10 minutes later, a tall black man spotted us doing interviews and wandered over. He also gave his first name only, Dominick (ph), and his age, 26.

DOMINICK: You know, and I'm a firm believer this is what Martin Luther King actually wanted - for all of us to come together as one. So just know that, you know, he still watching over us, and he's currently smiling right now.

KELLY: I'm interested to hear you say you think Martin Luther King's watching over, and he'd be smiling.

DOMINICK: Oh, yeah. This was his dream. Look at this - all colors, everybody. We all came together as one.

KELLY: I was struck listening to both of them. Out protesting police brutality in 2020, and on their minds is the civil rights icon who died decades before they were born. King's legacy looms large in these protests in Atlanta. In fact, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms was also invoking King this past Friday as she called for the looting and destruction that erupted that night to end.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEISHA LANCE BOTTOMS: What I see happening on the streets of Atlanta is not Atlanta. This is not a protest. This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. This is chaos.

KELLY: Although King himself, while a champion of nonviolent protest, was no prude about certain moments demanding radical action. Here he is in 1967, the year before he was killed, preaching at Ebenezer Baptist Church here in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: So it is important to see that they are times when a man-made law is out of harmony with the moral law of the universe. There are times when human law is out of harmony with eternal and divine laws. And when that happens you have an obligation to break it.

KELLY: King was born in Atlanta. He's buried here. That church, Ebenezer Baptist, was his pulpit. This past Sunday, with tensions running so high in the city, it fell to King's successor, the current senior pastor, Raphael Warnock, to deliver the sermon. His message - if you are not speaking up now...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAPHAEL WARNOCK: It is not only to be on the wrong side of history. It is not only to be on the wrong side of the issue. I submit that it is to be on the wrong side of God.

KELLY: I wanted to hear more, and so I invited Reverend Warnock to talk. We met both wearing masks and sat together on a bench on the patio of Paschal's, a soul food institution in Atlanta.

I just want to ask what it was like to deliver this past Sunday's sermon from that pulpit in Atlanta in this moment. Did you feel the weight of history on your words?

WARNOCK: I'll tell you what it was like. It was like when I preached the Sunday after Michael Brown's death, and the Sunday I preached after Sandra Bland's death, and Tamir Rice's death, and Trayvon Martin's death. And here we are. The death of George Floyd, as tragic as it is - and it's tragic - it is a flashpoint of a deeper systemic issue in our country, namely mass incarceration. And until we get serious about reinvesting in our people rather than investing in prisons, sadly I'm going to have to keep preaching that same sermon over and over again.

KELLY: In the sermon this past Sunday, you called on people to take the moral high ground.

WARNOCK: Absolutely.

KELLY: There was a line, which I'll quote your words to you, you said, don't allow undisciplined provocateurs of hate who engage in looting or who tweet about shooting to hijack the high moral message. Stay on high moral ground, and we will win. That line about tweeting about shooting, is that a reference to the president, President Trump, the when the looting starts, the shooting starts?

WARNOCK: It's a reference to that terrible tweet and any who sow the seeds of division. We need leaders who know how to bring us together.

KELLY: I should note, speaking of people who want to be leaders, you are in your church. You're running for the U.S. Senate, the seat that Republican Kelly Loeffler holds now.

WARNOCK: That's correct. I'm running for the United States Senate. And it comes as part of my long life commitment to freedom and to justice-making in the world. We are witnessing in this time - really, we are beset by two viruses - COVID-19 and COVID-1619.

KELLY: 1619.

WARNOCK: Yeah, 1619, the year that 50 or more Africans who had been enslaved arrived on the shores of Jamestown. And since that moment, we've been dealing as a country with this virus. And we thought that we had solved it after the Civil War, but it mutated into Jim Crow segregation. We thought that the civil rights movement vaccinated us against it, but then we got the new Jim Crow, as Michelle Alexander calls it, the mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. And so these flashpoints are a consequence of the criminalization of black bodies in general, brown bodies in general, black male bodies in particular. And that's what we're wrestling with this week.

KELLY: You've urged your congregation to protest but protest peacefully...

WARNOCK: That's correct.

KELLY: ...Which, of course, was the message at the heart of Martin Luther King's life and career. Do you see a split in the civil rights leadership in Atlanta today? We've heard John Lewis, we've heard Andrew Young making similar calls for peaceful protest. And there's a younger guard that has been speaking out saying, you know, old man, you're out of touch.

WARNOCK: No, I think that part of the problem is that we romanticize and we don't quite remember what the civil rights movement looked like. I think some 50 and more years later, we tend to imagine the civil rights movement as a time when men like Martin Luther King Jr. and women like Ella Baker, they knew exactly what to do. And they just showed up on the scene, and they did it, and all of a sudden, we got a civil rights bill and a voting rights bill. It was more complicated than that.

KELLY: And this was a live debate then, too - violent confrontation and whether that was the path.

WARNOCK: And there were challenges. You had the Martin Luther King Jr.'s of the world. You had the Stokely Carmichael's of the world. There's always been this creative tension about how to get to change. But I think, you know, to their credit, most of the young people that I see protesting in Atlanta are doing so peacefully.

KELLY: I remember growing up here, the slogan was Atlanta - the city too busy to hate, which perhaps was always more aspiration then reality, but how do we reconcile that with this moment?

WARNOCK: Well, I think it's still true. Atlanta is a magical place. I just want to make sure that our city and our state and our country is not too busy to love. And justice is what love looks like in public. And it takes time. It takes resources. It takes money.

KELLY: Think it takes new laws?

WARNOCK: It takes new laws to love. And I think that's what this moment is calling for.

KELLY: Reverend, thank you.

WARNOCK: Thank you.

KELLY: That is the Reverend Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church here in Atlanta.

Thanks for talking with us.

WARNOCK: Great to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.