In Part 1 of this series, I shared my thoughts and review of Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Epic Challenge to the Church, Edward Gilbreath’s newly-released book, described by him as an “extended reflection on Martin Luther King, Jr., Birmingham, and the church.”
After reading Birmingham Revolution, I was eager to know more from Ed. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to talk with him about his book and questions it raises for all Americans as we press into the lingering obstacles we face to make our society a more just and reconciled one. I have known Ed for six years, so this interview held special meaning for me. Working closely with him during his tenure as the former founding editor of Urban Faith was a pleasure and privilege. He is now the Executive Director of Strategic Communication for The Evangelical Covenant Church denomination in Chicago. Our conversation covered a wide range of topics and issues. I spoke with Ed about several provocative issues implicated by his book. Anger, white power and privilege, cultural honesty and self-examination? Yes, we went there. While we spoke easily as two colleagues and now friends, we also approached our dialogue soberly, feeling the intensity of the times and the urgency of the task before us.
This excerpt from our discussion was edited for clarity and conversational flow.
Chandra White-Cummings: In the prologue you [talk] about [the] concept of ‘personal whiteness’ that W.E.B. DuBois described, the idea that whiteness can be owned as an asset and as a point of identity. You comment that as [whites] learned to exert that power to their advantage, things began to happen. Today, what are some ways they use power to their advantage?
Edward Gilbreath: Today and I think historically it’s a circumstantial thing that people of European descent began to recognize certain associations with their skin color and they began to make those connections. It’s more a [matter of] legacy….If you trace [it] back over time you could see that a lot of them benefitted, even the United States itself benefitted from the privileges that were ascribed to those of a particular race: whether it be ownership of slaves that did work [or] the economic development of slavery that led to the [building] of wealth for various families and institutions. So that legacy continues in ways that many people don’t even realize. People [today] weren’t around for that and you can’t blame them. They weren’t personally responsible for certain things but they’re still benefitting from them and have the privilege.
So, how do we see it exerted today? I don’t think it’s necessarily intentional; I think it’s just people living into a legacy, a heritage of privilege. The trick today is being able to step outside of that and to make the connections between how I am enjoying the position I’m in today and how that’s related to history and things that happened in the past. This doesn’t make people guilty of anything but it does mean maybe I need to be more responsible and hold myself in some way accountable for how I use the privilege I have. And as a Christian then what does that mean for me? What’s the responsible use of that privilege and that power? I don’t want to accuse anyone or point fingers and say [anyone] is being racist and is exerting white privilege, but I would think that all of us in different ways could step back and practice the role of a historian to make connections between what we have today and what it took for that to happen. And that’s not just white people, that’s also African Americans.
CWC: [In Chapter 4 you mention] conversations you’ve had with Randy Woodley (a Keetoowah Cherokee pastor, teacher, and activist) about the “spirituality of risk and doing.” I was captivated by that phrase…because there are two aspects to it: there’s risk but there’s also specific things that need to get done. It also shows that there is a spiritual component to taking risks; it’s not just about suffering social or political consequences. What risks do you think black Christians need to take [in the areas of racial justice and reconciliation]?
EG: Wow that’s a really good question. One thing that comes to mind is when you see someone like Bill Cosby who, over the years, has earned the right to speak his mind… But when you see him make a statement about the need for African Americans to be a little more self-critical and to take more personal responsibility, and challenging us on some of the things that may be detrimental to our uplift, a lot of folks turn on him because he would dare “blame” black people for their problems… I’m speaking generally here, but [it seems] we don’t want to put our dirty laundry on display and criticize some of the things we’re doing that are hurting [us]. So we need to be more honest with ourselves.
… [W]e should all equally be on the hook for the areas that God has given us to be accountable for. But I think there’s a mindset that will keep black folks stuck or paralyzed in an “us vs them” racism mentality [rather than] what does it look like if we decide to be purveyors of grace, being able to step aside and recognize some of the blind spots that some folks in the white community and the white church have but not let that put us in a spot where we allow ourselves to use that against them.
… I don’t look at our history as being something that always condemns us to being victims but in some ways it empowers us to be more grace-filled, more empowered to love others with greater knowledge of the fallenness [of human beings]. I think there’s risk involved in that…really taking the gospel seriously and living that out. If we do that, sometimes it might look like we’re letting people off the hook, or we’re [not] properly demonstrate[ing] whatever righteous indignation we should be showing. You can have a burning call and desire for justice while still being faithful to the call of loving your neighbor. That’s the trick, balancing [the two]. The tendency is to go one way or the other, either operating mostly out of anger or in another direction but what does it look like to balance those things? To me, that’s the spiritual risk in many ways.
[Speaking of anger…]
CWC: I know you hope that by reading the book people will see King in a different way and not romanticize him so much, and that we would get a more comprehensive view of him as an integrated human being; not just the I-have-a-dream icon. …I never considered him to be angry yet you show that he did carry some anger. You identify as one source of his anger people’s failure to really listen to what he was saying. I wonder a couple things. First, what do you think [black Christians] should do with our anger? Second, do you think the source of our anger today is the same reason [for King’s] anger back then?
EG: Dr. King was all about a redemptive approach and a constructive anger. Even as we’re being driven by a righteous indignation in pursuit of true justice, [we shouldn’t] allow that indignation or anger to become an end in itself, which I think sometimes happens today. Are we allowing it to drive us to build relationships or bridges with those who might traditionally be considered our opponents? [Are we] finding ways to humanize [them]…? [A]re we working in the community, volunteering to serve, doing things that may be of benefit? [T]he anger should drive us to get involved, to make a difference. We can be involved to build relationships, to reverse that anger, to drive us to something greater and redemptive.
For [many] I think anger today comes from a place of hopelessness and despair that is satisfied dwelling within that anger. Dr. King’s anger propelled him to move forward, but for some I think it’s become a pastime or a hobby just to dwell on the ways that racism exists today. For [people like that], they’re satisfied with being angry and leaving it there. But for Dr. King [the focus] wasn’t just pointing at racism, but [being] challenged to move forward. Whether it’s reaching across the racial divide or putting ourselves on the line to demand change in a specific arena. So it wasn’t just about being mad at the system, but it was about changing that system and about doing it in a redemptive way: by loving your neighbor through nonviolent means. There’s a role for being angry but it needs to drive us to something redemptive, and I’m not sure that’s [always] the case.
CW: I believe the Christian community hasn’t clearly articulated what we think reconciliation should look like among [Christians of different ethnicities]. It doesn’t seem that we’ve identified it in actionable or measurable terms. Dr. King and his colleagues had readily identifiable issues they were dealing with: discrimination in public accommodations, discrimination in housing, voting rights, etc. Do you think we have a clearly expressed vision of what reconciliation looks like?
EG: For the purposes of this book, I was thinking of it in terms of Dr. King’s beloved community. The beloved community described a society defined by justice, peace, and harmony that came through nonviolent means. There’s a sense that the pursuit of the beloved community—racial reconciliation in modern terms—is an ongoing activity. Part of the problem we’ve had over the last twenty years or so is that we’ve set out to pursue it as if there’s [an] end point [and once] we reach it, we’re done. [W]hat defines it is how we interact with our brothers and our sisters within church and within society. [Do we] see each other as real people and not as props for a particular ideology or political perspective or the stereotypes we associate with race? Are we able to move past [what] the world tells us we should believe about each other and see each other as people created in the image of God? We have to wrestle with getting along with our fellow man. The commitment is to loving the person beyond the labels and beyond [what’s] attached to them by the world. That’s work. There won’t always be agreement but yet the underlying commitment is to unity and to reconciliation. It’s always going to be hard; it’s always going to be a struggle. Are [we] ready to wrestle…to do what it takes to love our brother and sister, [to move] beyond the issues of race, culture, and politics? Are [we] ready to sign up for that?
Ed’s right; it’s time to live the gospel in an authentic and transformative way. In the prophetic tradition of Dr. King, he calls us to shed the shackles of cultural conformity and become bold extremists for justice and love.
 Edward Gilbreath, Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Epic Challenge to the Church, (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2013), 167