Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel

By Gary Dorrien. Yale University Press, 2018. 632 pages. $45/hardcover or eBook; $30/paperback.

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In Breaking White Supremacy, Gary Dorrien, professor of social ethics at Union Theological Seminary and professor of religion at Columbia University, makes a convincing case that Martin Luther King Jr. should be understood as part of an underappreciated religious tradition, the Black social gospel. Dorrien argues that this “neo-abolitionist theology of social justice” was the animating tradition that informed King’s thought and action, motivated his organization of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and led to many of the victories of the Civil Rights Movement. This book is the follow-up volume to Dorrien’s earlier work, The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel, which won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in Religion in 2017 and covered the emergence of the Black social gospel in the early twentieth century. Breaking White Supremacy can profitably be read on its own, but together the volumes form a remarkably comprehensive study of the role of religion in the struggle for black freedom and are certain to become a standard work on the subject.

The book is a series of biographical accounts of key Black religious leaders, covering their childhoods, educations, and activist careers. Topics include Benjamin May’s efforts to find a way to approach God that would be relevant to the social struggles of African Americans, Boston University chaplain Howard Thurman’s mystically inclined approach to religion, and Pauli Murray’s attempts to develop an intersectional approach to theology that could be both feminist and in favor of racial justice. As one might expect, the figure who receives the most attention is King. Dorrien skillfully documents how King welded together several different streams of thought, from the Black church upbringing he received as the son of a pastor to the white liberal Protestant theology of his graduate training and Gandhian ideas of nonviolent social change.

King’s persistent vision for nonviolent social change and his knowledge that his witness would lead to his death make him seem almost Christ-like; much of the book, however, makes clear he had human faults. Dorrien sees King as a model for laying out a progressive religious vision in his economic agenda, which grew toward democratic socialism and began to include demands for policies like a federally guaranteed minimum income. Quaker readers may find the detailed discussion of how King tried to balance his idealistic devotion to nonviolence with the realism of political action to be particularly helpful. It is quite clear that King stayed committed to his nonviolent vision until the end of his life.

The book rightly portrays the Black leaders it depicts as heroic figures, but it manages to avoid becoming entirely celebratory. One high note is the nuance with which the book dealt with the life of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the Harlem minister turned influential Democratic congressman. Powell was a master of political intrigue who used his talents to advocate for civil rights legislation while living a celebrity lifestyle with numerous extramarital affairs and legally dubious financial practices. Powell was not always a firm ally of King and notably tried to blackmail him with the false allegation that King and Bayard Rustin were a gay couple. Dorrien’s account does not shy away from showing Powell’s ambitious and Machiavellian side, but also takes his religious life and moral commitments seriously, showing how Powell tried to live out his personal vision of Christianity.

This is a book that offers a rich reward to those who want to devote the time to go through it, but it is lengthy and so comprehensive that casual readers or book groups may feel deterred. Breaking White Supremacy is not suited to serve as an introduction to those seeking an understanding of the Civil Rights Movement because it assumes readers know at least the outline of the major events in King’s life. It offers considerable detail on topics that seem of less urgency than the work of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, such as the many pages that are devoted to the career of Mordecai Johnson, the president of Howard University, and discuss Howard’s institutional politics at length. For its intended audience, who already know the basic facts of King’s life but want to better understand his place in American theology, this book is invaluable.

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