In the 15th and 16th centuries, Europeans made two discoveries that shaped the history of our continent. First, they discovered the southern half of Africa, populated by black people who were defenseless against European methods of warfare, and could be easily subdued. Second, they found the so-called “New World,” a rich land that was sparsely populated in many areas, and ripe for exploitation and colonization. This, combined with advances in wooden ships, resulted in the idea that Africa was a type of field where slaves could be harvested and shipped to work in America.
The result was that some Europeans began to brutally enslave the black Africans and transport them to North America. The first and last to engage in this were the Portuguese, but almost every European nation participated. Black people were brought to the English colony of Jamestown first in 1619 as indentured servants. Within a few decades slavery became institutionalized. Slavery in America accelerated and expanded under the reign of the English King George III. After the American War of Independence, a compromise item in the U.S. Constitution allowed the African slave trade to continue another twenty years (strange for a document considered to be “inspired” by some). With the loss of their American colonies, the British also lost commercial interest in slavery. It was soon outlawed in Great Britain through the advocacy of such outstanding Christians as William Wilberforce. In 19th Century America, slavery became confined to the Southern states. On the eve of the Civil War, the U.S. census counted nearly 4,000,000 slaves in this country.
The American institution of slavery was unprecedented in world history, because of its racial basis. Virtually all black people in the U.S. were slaves. And all slaves in the U.S. were black. Not since the enslaved Hebrews of the book of Exodus had there been a nation of slaves, a race enslaved for hundreds of years within a larger nation.
Even though Abraham Lincoln gave legal freedom to the black slaves of America, and the Civil War was fought over this issue, the legacy of slavery was not so easily overcome. The history of black slavery became the justification of some whites for assumptions of racial superiority. Stereotypes of black people were widely assumed in this country, stereotypes of laziness, dishonesty, and inferior intelligence; stereotypes that were used to perpetuate racial oppression.
The systematic segregation reached its depth of shame in the 1950s. Segregation in the South extended to such basic things as public buses. In the first four rows, signs were clearly posted saying “whites only.” If these rows were full, black people were required to give up their seats and move further back in the bus. Standard procedure required black people to pay their fares and then walk outside to board the bus by the rear door.
Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his life to Jesus at age 5 in his daddy’s church. Although his childhood was somewhat sheltered, he experienced the bigotry of Atlanta at an early age. He later recalled an incident from his childhood that made a particularly strong impression upon him. As a youngster he was returning home on the bus after winning a school speech contest. The happy young boy, dressed in his Sunday best and feeling on top of the world, was crushed when he was called to yield his bus seat to a white man. As he moved to the back, the white conductor railed at him, calling him a black s.o.b. King’s parents taught him that as a Christian he must love white people. His response at that time: “How can I love a race of people who hate me?”
In 1964 King became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Four years later, on April 5, 1968, he was shot to death by avowed racist, James Earl Ray, in Memphis. As is true of us all, Martin Luther King, Jr. was an imperfect vessel, but he was used of God in a powerful way. He speaks to the Christian community today, saying that race hatred may have no part among the people of God.
On September 5, 1963, King spoke in Birmingham, Alabama for a funeral for some little girls. These children were killed while attending Sunday School in their church by a racially motivated bombing. This is part of what he said:
At times, life is hard, as hard as crucible steel. It has its bleak and painful moments. Like the ever-flowing waters of a river, life has its moments of drought and its moments of flood. Like the ever-changing cycle of the seasons, life has the soothing warmth of the summers and the piercing chill of its winters. But through it all, God walks with us. Never forget that God is able to lift you from the fatigue and despair to the buoyancy of hope, and transform dark and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of inner peace.
Our society is permeated by sin, and so we are not surprised when race hatred raises its ugly head, even in the church. But this is no excuse to accept it and not work for a better world.
Nebraska Christian College