Civil Rights Icon’s Theology the Topic of J-Term Class

News Story categories: Honors Religious Studies
Martin Luther King Jr leaning over a podium

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision for a more peaceful, equitable world is as stirring today as it was during the Civil Rights Movement nearly 70 years ago. Just ask the students in Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Larry Enis’ honors class, Theology of Martin Luther King, Jr. Together, they are discovering how King’s approach to sacred texts is inextricably linked to his understanding of and teachings about race.

“Who is God to King? What did King think was God’s agenda, and how did that guide his actions?” Enis asked. “When we generally think of King, ‘radical’ is not the first term that comes to mind. We think ‘nice.’ We think ‘inspirational.’ But King had a resilient nature that I hope students will understand and appreciate after reading his sermons.”

The founding pastor of New Beginnings Church in Mechanicsville, Enis designed his class to put King’s most influential works in the broader context of his life. He asks students to draw on a collection of more than 400 of King’s writings, sermons, and speeches to trace the evolution of King’s theological and philosophical attitudes across time. Enis uses the example of King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Three and a half years after delivering the iconic message, King would tell NBC News correspondent Sander Vanocur that his dream had “turned into a nightmare.”

“We celebrate that speech today even though King didn’t fully endorse it at the time of his death,” Enis said. “He looked back on it as youthful optimism.”

Matt Gunn ’22 (Engineering major) was intrigued by the tension between optimism and realism in King’s later work. He guided the class through his reading of the collection’s namesake essay, a posthumously published piece titled “A Testament of Hope” in which King expresses his frustration with the accumulating effects of America’s “interrelated flaws—racism, poverty, militarism and materialism.” Despite that frustration, King professed that he had not yet become “a grim and desperate man,” but was rather an optimist driven by “the sense of affirmation generated by the challenge of embracing struggle and surmounting obstacles.”

“It reads as a cautious celebration of successes,” Gunn explained. “He had experienced some of the highs that came with successful marches, but it’s clear he realized how badly racism still lingered, especially after his visit to Chicago in 1965. It seems like in this essay King knows he’s proposing solutions that aren’t going to be easily implemented.”

“King was traumatized by the racism he experienced when he visited Chicago in the final years of his life,” Enis said. “He had been to Mississippi, Alabama, and Atlanta, sites of unimaginable bigotry that had seen advances during the era’s protests. He went to take those victories up north, but wrote that in Chicago he encountered the most hateful racism he had ever experienced in his life. Nevertheless, he comes away from that experience still able to talk about the possibility of peace in this essay. What does that say about him?”

Reflecting on King’s legacy, Caroline Pearson ’23 (Biology major) provided her own answer to that question.

“He experienced so many hardships, and even though he had so many problems and so many people who were against him, he still was resilient and fought for what he believed in,” she said. “And that’s just an amazing example for people today.”

Maria Fabiato ’24 (Biology and Religious Studies double-major) came to a similar conclusion in her reading of King’s “A Christmas Sermon on Peace.” In it, King argues that a truly just society recognizes that “ends are not cut off from means … because the means represent the seed and the end represents the tree.”

“I’m not surprised he had that viewpoint,” Fabiato said. “‘The end justifies the means’ is such a common phrase among leaders, but he refused to accept that mindset and gave a lot of examples from scripture that demonstrate why he held to his belief in nonviolence.”

With two full weeks left in the J-term semester, there’s plenty of material left to explore, including King’s relationship to other Civil Rights figures like Malcom X, Stokely Carmichael, and Joseph H. Jackson, and how the late theologian might respond to the Black Lives Matter movement. Enis hopes his students continue to find inspiration in the variety of King’s output, and that they can appreciate the evolution of the theologian’s thought over time. That, he believes, is a more complicated yet truthful representation of the icon’s legacy.

“To limit the study of King to his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech is to miss the full picture of some of the issues and challenges that he faced,” Enis said. “From 1963 to his assassination in 1968, he still had to endure numerous trials—inexplicable anguish. He had to overcome various issues that we often don’t deal with in our study of King and in our remembrance of his legacy, such as his bouts with depression and constant threats upon his life.”