Written by Tyler Lee
On August 21-23, the Montreat Conference Center hosted a historic conference titled “Dr. King’s Unfinished Agenda.” The “teach-in” commemorated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s address in Anderson Auditorium and pondered how today’s church can answer the challenges King posed when he visited Montreat in 1965. I spoke with associate professor of history, Dr. Patrick Connelly, about his reflections on the conference and the continuing implications of King’s vision on today’s world.
Tyler Lee: What was the general premise of the conference as a whole?
Dr. Patrick Connelly: 50 years ago, the Presbyterian Church invited Martin Luther King Jr. to speak. The occasion for this conference was not just to commemorate the 50th anniversary of that occasion, a really historic moment here in Montreat, but to suggest that there is an unfinished agenda here. Fundamentally, the idea is that there are still real challenges regarding race and civil rights in this country, and we need to renew our commitment to fulfill the dream of equality for all.
From a historical perspective, why was Dr. King’s speech in Anderson Auditorium back in 1965 significant for Montreat?
By 1965, major civil rights legislation had been passed and he had already made the “I Have a Dream” speech. King was a prominent, international figure who had already seen some historic successes. To have a public figure who had been part of this movement here in this little cove and valley was a big deal, but it was also to speak to an audience that was predominantly white and who historically had dragged their feet on a lot of those issues. You had a lot of people in the Presbyterian Church who were seeing the importance of it and wanted to invite him to speak, challenge, and encourage these people. If you were to write a history of Montreat, that’s a big event, having him speak at the peak of his power.
In light of current events and racial tensions, how do you think MLK’s vision ties into modern day struggles and issues?
One of the themes of the conference was that there has been a little bit of a generational shift. Some people have passed away, but you still have some like John Lewis, who are still a part of the Civil Rights movement as we usually think of it in the 1960s. Now, however, there is also a younger group of leaders on these issues who were born after that and come at it from a little bit of a different angle. One example, Ta-Nehisi Coates, is probably one of the most prominent African-American thinkers in the country right now. He writes for The Atlantic and has just written a book, Between the World and Me, that is in the form of a letter to his son. What’s interesting about it is, if you think about Martin Luther King Jr. and a lot of the Civil Rights movement, one of the key institutions and sources of inspiration and organization was the African-American church. Ta-Nehisi Coates is an atheist, so he frames the issue very differently. Leonard Pitts, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is more of the older tradition or generation of thinking about Civil Rights. Pitts is still deeply concerned about what’s happened in different parts of the country like Ferguson and Charleston and other places and still thinks we have a lot of issues to work out, yet he doesn’t despair about it.
In that case, will civil rights ever stop being relevant?
Pitts tried to make the case that the Civil Rights movement is not over. In his talk, he used a metaphor of a trip. Let’s say we left from here and drove to Seattle to see the space needle. We stop in Kansas City, which is a great city. It has great music and barbecue and so forth, but that’s not the destination. We don’t want to just be stuck in Kansas City, we want to make it to Seattle and see the space needle. He was using that as a metaphor to answer those who ask, ‘We’ve made so much progress, why are people always talking about race?’ What he was saying was, ‘Of course we’ve made progress; there’s no doubt about that. That doesn’t mean we’ve reached the endpoint; there’s still work to do.’ Pitts sees a whole range of problems and challenges of institutional racism and historical difficulties that continue to play themselves out in African-American life. There’s work to do, and there are frustrations and discouragement with that, but not despair.
You also mentioned John Lewis. What was Lewis’ message to the conference?
John Lewis is currently a congressman in the House of Representatives, but is really known for being in the inner sanctum of the Civil Rights movement leadership. John Lewis, in hopeful, optimistic terms, was calling on the church to get active and cause what he called “good trouble” on these issues. Lewis was one of the “Big Six,” a group of leaders who were in the inner circle of King. He was there at some really pivotal moments in the Civil rights movement. He rode the buses with the Freedom Riders who rode through the South and tried to integrate places they stopped at by having a black and white person walk in together, for example. He’s been beaten, jailed, and had his life threatened multiple times. Lewis emphasized nonviolence and not giving in to hate. You can go on social media at any time and hear the latest news and just despair over the world. Lewis was really trying to, out of his faith, give a message of hope while stepping into action on these issues. If I had stood up and given the speech he gave, it wouldn’t have had the same power. It wasn’t just what he said, it was who was saying it. Lewis is someone who has suffered and been tested and come out of that test. There’s a powerful witness there, that when he says those things, there’s an authenticity to it. He really is a hero in my eyes for what he did in the 1960s and how he was able to conduct himself with such bravery and courage without retaliating when people struck out at him.
What did Lewis’ message imply for this “new generation?”
Lewis really emphasized the importance of voting and encouraged the younger people in the audience to vote. I could tell you that, but when you think of some of the key Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s (i.e. the voting rights act), the vote was a sacred thing for that community who had been discriminated against, who had for a long time either been denied or discouraged the right to vote. After the Civil War and Reconstruction amendments, African Americans were supposed to be able to vote, but then states came up with other ways to deny the votes (literacy tests, poll taxes) to try to prevent them from voting. For him, voting was a really important, significant act; it’s something that he fought hard for and that many take for granted.
Why is a conference like this important in a time like this?
A conference like this provides the opportunity for us to evaluate how our faith relates to urgent issues of society today, to issues we often hear about in the political sphere. How does our faith lead us to act in terms of pursuing justice and pursuing the treatment of all with dignity? It’s an opportunity to evaluate what is going on in our society. A lot of the speakers were from the African-American community, so what are they telling those of us who aren’t in that community about their experience, about the pressing issues? What are our blind spots that they can help us be aware of or think through—real systemic, structural challenges in regards to race? It’s a good opportunity for us to do some reflection and thinking about this issue in our society and question how our faith integrates into that and leads to action. What does the church do now?