Diane Reich

Before a crowd of 550 religious leaders, activists and scholars, the Yale Divinity School hosted a panel discussion in Memphis, Tennessee, earlier this month to tackle the question of how to carry on the work of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Titled “Living the Legacy Today: MLK at 50,” the panel was held at Temple Israel in partnership with the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, where King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. The panel was moderated by Jonathan Judaken, an author, broadcast journalist and professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, and was composed of four community and faith leaders from Memphis and around the nation, including Yale Divinity School assistant professor Eboni Marshall Turman, whose work focuses on black and womanist theology. The discussion, which began with opening statements from each of the panelists and then followed a Q&A format, explored ways in which religious communities and society as a whole can live the legacy that King left in the civil rights movement half a century ago.

“The murder [of King] occurred in Memphis, but that shot was heard not only through America but throughout the world,” Divinity School Dean Greg Sterling said in his opening remarks before the panel. “It was an attempt to silence a prophetic voice that had awakened this country to the evil of racism.”

Sterling added that many Americans forget that King was not only a civil rights leader but also a minister who led the civil rights movement on the “moral basis of his leadership.” At the end of his opening remarks, Sterling urged audience members to consider ways they can help remedy the racial and economic injustices that still exist in their communities.

In their opening statements, the panelists addressed the question of what it means to live the legacy of King today. According to Turman, living King’s legacy means not just fighting for racial and economic justice, but also “making connections” to the need for gender and sexual justice. She emphasized the virtue of “self-reflexivity” and the need for black church communities to consider how they are implicated in societal injustices.

“Living the legacy means … connecting the dots between the fact of the continued and disproportionate shooting and slaughter of black men, women and children today not because of how much money they have or how much education they have or don’t have, but simply for being black,” she said.

Turman added that the mainstream media plays a role in perpetuating racial injustice because it is used to “beastialize and dehumanize” black identity. She pointed out, however, that black art has served as an opportunity for black Americans to “see a future beyond white supremacy.”

Gerald Durley, author and pastor emeritus of Providence Missionary Baptist Church, argued that, although the role and language of religion in civil rights movements may have declined since King, there still exists the same “faith and hope element” in today’s movements.

“There has always been that underpinning moral fiber that there is a God large enough to see us through,” he continued. “We never started a movement unless we understood that there was a deity that was greater than us because it’s sublimated the fear that we would have to go ahead.”

Katie Bauman, associate rabbi at Temple Israel, highlighted the importance of religious leaders’ role in retelling personal experiences that demonstrate the prevalence of racial and economic injustices today. As a white woman, she added, she recognizes the importance of “facing the reality of what we have been a part of” but also the courage it takes to do so. Finally, she said that the religious community is “uniquely positioned” to support people who need to face this reality.

For his final question to the panel, Judaken drew from his native country of South Africa, describing how the country established a truth and reconciliation commission after the end of apartheid. He then asked the panelists whether they think the United States should create a similar commission in response to its history of slavery.

In her response, Traci Blackmon, executive minister of justice and witness ministries of the United Church of Christ, stressed the distinction between “truth” and “reconciliation.”

“I don’t believe in truth and reconciliation hearings,” she said. “I don’t think it has worked in South Africa and it hasn’t worked in America. But we need truth-telling sessions where people sit with the truth. There is no reconciliation without repentance … and quite frankly in America, when you’re dealing with generations of oppression, there is no repentance without reparations.”

The Yale Divinity School has also hosted panel discussions in Pasadena, California; Chicago, Illinois; and Washington, D.C.

Amber Hu | amber.hu@yale.edu