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

By Gary Dorrien, Reinbold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary

My latest book stands on its own and fulfills my longtime desire to see someone—eventually, me—give the black social gospel tradition its due recognition. The founding of the black social gospel in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a prolonged affair of forerunners and founders comprising four different ideological perspectives. This book is about something later and more specific—the mid-twentieth century black church leaders who embraced the full-orbed, modern, progressive, justice-oriented, internationalist social gospel from the beginning of their careers and fulfilled it. They did not break their nation of white supremacy or other forms of oppression connected to it. But they inspired and led America’s greatest liberation movement. 

This book is distinctly personal for me because it converges on the figure that propelled me into social justice activism and Christian ministry, and then an academic career. I came of age during the climactic years of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. seized my attention before I understood much of anything about politics or religion, and his contributions to the black freedom and anti-Vietnam War movements anchored my worldview when I entered college. In my twenties and early thirties I worked as a solidarity activist and Episcopal pastor; in my mid-thirties I became an academic; today I have the same touchstone—the peacemaking and justice-making way of Jesus, as exemplified by King—with which I began.

The black social gospel was an actual tradition outside the white social gospel and also in it. The parallel with the white social gospel makes my point. 

Various people in the white social gospel movement can be construed as Christian Socialists, idealistic pacifists, communitarian reformers, and the like. But these categories do not capture the richness, variety, or influence of the social gospel, a category that defines an entire era of ecumenical Christianity. Nobody disputes that something called the (white) social gospel was tremendously important in American religious history, and today nobody disputes that Martin Luther King Jr. was a major social gospel figure. Yet we never had, until now, a work that places King in the black social gospel tradition that led to him.