By George Clifford
Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton recently clashed over a remark that Hillary Clinton had made in reference to Martin Luther King, Jr. The tempest has subsided and all agreed on King’s unique importance and contributions to social justice. But the controversy prompted me to once again reflect on King’s significance for my own life and ministry.
From the time I was in college, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has been a role model for my life and my ministry. Having grown up in Maine, racism (combining prejudice and power to discriminate against another race) was primarily an intellectual concept until I attended college. As a student at our nation’s first college to award a degree to an African-American, I learned that racism comes in many different forms. The Klu Klux Klan exemplifies overt racism. Institutions that claim to provide equal opportunity but that use tests known to disadvantage a minority practice covert racism. Latent racism is perhaps the most insidious and intransigent form of racism, representing the cultural stereotypes and prejudices to which all of us are exposed as a consequence of being born and raised in a racist society.
The idea that we live in a racist society offends some. It shocked me when a college friend first suggested it. Then I started to listen. I listened to how teachers and employers treated college classmates. I listened to the men with whom I worked in Trenton State Prison whose death sentences had been changed to life imprisonment when the death penalty was ruled unconstitutional (a ruling since reversed). Then, as with those on death row today, their numbers were overwhelmingly African-American. All things being equal – economic status, education, social class, etc. – African-Americans are far more likely to receive a death sentence than Caucasian Americans are. I listened to the first inter-racial couple who asked me to officiate at their wedding. Seven other clergy had refused to officiate because the man was black and the woman white. I listened to the parents who brought their adopted children to my parish, and to the children, tell of the racism that they experienced at school and in other churches because the families included Caucasians, Asians, African-Americans and Native Americans.
When I joined the Navy, I continued to listen. The first African-American chaplain promoted to Captain told me about the obstacles he had faced in the Chaplain Corps, prejudice that continues even into the present. An African-American ship captain, a former star athlete at the Naval Academy, told me of the hatred and racism that he had faced. Senior Marines told me how the Marine Corps has struggled unsuccessfully for decades to correct the imbalance in the ratio of African-American officers to enlisted. Listening to stories of racism brings tears to my eyes and raises my blood pressure. I feel face to face with evil.
Martin Luther King, Jr., knew all of the above. He personally experienced racism’s destructive and dehumanizing power. Yet he believed and preached that Christ's power to save is not limited to what happens when we die but includes transforming our values and attitudes in this life. Martin Luther King, Jr., believed that the world could become a better place. He lived and worked in the hope that one-day children all of races would live and play together as brothers and sisters. He was killed because he believed that walking in Jesus' footsteps meant opposing the evil of racism and other forms of social injustice at all costs but that the opposition must take a Christ-like shape.
When still in college, I felt called to spend my life making the world a better place. I briefly considered the law and politics. But by the seventies, when I was in college, enormous legislative and judicial strides had been taken. Overt racism, except as protected free speech, was largely illegal. Separate facilities for different races were abolished. Inter-racial marriage was increasingly common. Education, employment, and residential discrimination were less open and against the law. Covert racism was being slowly rooted out. Institutions were establishing equal opportunity policies, programs and offices. Affirmative action resulted in significant positive steps towards rectifying past discrimination.
Yet latent racism remained pervasive. People needed healing in their lives. Hatred, prejudice, and resentment needed transforming into genuine love for all of one’s neighbors, regardless of race or any other characteristic or belief. All are God's children and God loves all equally. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a living example, for me, of an extremely effective and articulate clergyperson who transformed lives and society into a closer reflection of Christ's image. His example inspired me to seek ordination and to serve the Church. I believe that God called me to the ministry to assist in changing lives and our world into a place where people are judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. Even today, almost a quarter of a century later, when I feel discouraged or wonder if I might have made more of a difference in the world, I remember Martin Luther King, Jr., and find myself encouraged and strengthened. He is truly one of the saints of God.
The Rev. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, with tours at sea, with the Marine Corps, on the staff of the Chief of Chaplains, on exchange with the Royal Navy in London, as the senior Protestant chaplain at the Naval Academy, and as the senior chaplain at the Naval Postgraduate School.