Breaking White Supremacy

Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Black Social Gospel

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Gary Dorrien
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , January
     632 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


What made Martin Luther King, Jr. the stand-out minister and social activist that he became? There are many biographies of King that seek to answer this question through his personal biography. However, according to Gary Dorrien, King was made by what he calls the “Black Social Gospel” of the late 19th and early 20th century. African American “race men” in institutions like Howard University were King’s trailblazers in the quest to bend white ears to the gospel of social salvation. As Dorrien explains it, these black ministers, politicians, and activists “combined an emphasis on black dignity and personhood with protest activism for racial justice, a comprehensive social justice agenda, an insistence that authentic Christian faith is incompatible with racial prejudice, an emphasis on the social ethical teaching of Jesus, and an acceptance of modern scholarship and social consciousness” (3). Black liberation theologies did not emerge from King—King emerged from this tradition.

Dorrien’s over-five-hundred-page tome invests more than half its space in the biographies of King’s intellectual forerunners and mentors. For example, Mordecai Johnson, the president of Howard University in the first few decades of the 20th century, embraced Walter Rauschenbush’s teachings on structural sin and turned his religion department into a research center for higher criticism and preaching of the Social Gospel. Elijah Mays and Howard Thurman, Southern-born ministers educated in the North, came to Howard chasing Johnson’s dream of “reaching sizeable white audiences with a racial justice message” (96). Mays took his training by white Social Gospel ministers like Shailer Matthews into the South, and collaborated with multiple civil rights organizations. Thurman brought the rich world of Christian pacifism to Howard’s religion department. As a delegate of the Student Volunteer Movement early in his life, Thurman had traveled to India, met Gandhi, and preached widely on the value of Christian internationalism. He would later tutor King in the power of Christian pacifism to change hearts. 

The second half of Dorrien’s collective biography explores the simultaneous political and legal traditions of leftist, social democratic, and black power activism that King was immersed in throughout his early career. We meet Adam Clayton Powell, the politician and son of a pastor who had faith in the gospel to unite blacks and whites under their common interests. We consider how A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and James Farmer contributed to King’s particular combination of beliefs in the power of nonviolent resistance and Christian socialism. Dorrien convincingly shows that King’s rejection of certain forms of Black Power politics in favor of true integration was far from a concession to “gradualism.” Rather, to King, real integration—power sharing—would empower African Americans to see themselves, and to be seen by whites, as social and spiritual equals. Dorrien calls King “the true founder of black liberation theology” and argues that his critics within the Black Power movement misunderstood his social and political goals (441). 

This meticulously researched yet highly readable text will unquestionably remain an authority in the field of Social Christianity for decades to come. Dorrien rightly reframes King’s theology and politics as products of the Progressive era’s vision of Christian social democracy through spiritual change. King was not, as some of his biographers and critics have offered, driven by the simple desire to please whites. For this intervention alone, Breaking White Supremacy is necessary reading for all students of Social Christianity. 

Dorrien’s narrative illustrates the ways in which Black Social Gospel ministers cross-fertilized ideas with white Social Gospel leaders and socialist, interracial organizations throughout the early 20th century. As Dorrien shows, Thurman, Mays, and King each read Walter Rauschenbush. They admired Gandhi. Many joined interracial organizations, including the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Many learned from Christian Socialists in the labor movement. Dorrien’s evidence persuades readers that African Americans played a significant role within the Social Gospel movement, but he offers little evidence that black ministers tried to create intentionally black religious spaces before the 1960s. Is the term “Black Social Gospel,” then, the best way to describe the work of black members within an intentionally interracial movement? 

If Dorrien had taken working class Christians more seriously as actors in the making of popular theologies, the Howard University School of Religion might appear too distant from most African Americans’ lives to explain King’s rise to prominence. As Dorrien acknowledges, Holiness and Pentecostal churches played a significant role within the African American religious landscape. However, some black intellectuals, like Elijah Mays, easily dismissed these churches for their “anti-intellectualism.” Dorrien acknowledges this condescension, but he does not interrogate it. In their The Gospel of the Working Class: Labor's Southern Prophets in New Deal America (University of Illinois Press: 2011)Jarod Roll and Erik Gellman show that some Holiness-Pentecostal communities were vibrant nexuses of worldly and spiritual ideas. They, along with several others—including Richard Callahan, Leilah Danielson, and Alison Greene—have examined the working class socialists and social gospelers who proclaimed Mays’s and Thurman’s gospel of pacifism and economic integration within the small towns and cities of the North and South. 

Dorrien ultimately gives too much credit to divinity schools (such as the one at Howard) as training grounds for the message of social salvation. Brookwood Labor College, the Highlander Folk School, and a significant number of periodicals—to say nothing of the interwar labor movement—offered alternate routes to deep engagement with a very similar message. King’s ideas had traction among working class African Americans not simply because Howard University’s School of Religion offered a fertile training ground in the Social Gospel. King’s message had traction because working class and low church Social Christianities ran right alongside the middle class and high church Social Gospel movement. 

Nevertheless, these quibbles are small considering what the book does accomplish. Even while the Black Social Gospel story that Dorrien tells was only a small subset of the socialist, black nationalist, and internationalist elements of the Black Church in the early 20th century, this story is as important as any other. Most importantly of all, it is new. Dorrien again proves that we have only begun to scratch the surface of the interracial history of Social Christianity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Janine Giordano Drake is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Providence.

Date of Review: 
June 26, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gary Dorrien is the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Religion at Columbia University. He is the author of eighteen books that range across the fields of ethics, social theory, theology, philosophy, politics, and history. His recent book, The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel, won the 2017 Grawemeyer Award in Religion.


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