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Gospel Reflections from the Mountaintop

Thousands gather in Memphis to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. on the 50th anniversary of his assassination.

MEMPHIS, Tennessee — Over 4,000 people attended the MLK50: Gospel Reflections from the Mountaintop conference April 3-4 in Memphis. The dual purpose of the conference was to commemorate the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. on the 50th anniversary of his assassination and to reflect on ways to move forward toward greater racial unity in the American Church.

In his brief 39 years, the Baptist minister became a towering figure in the U.S. civil rights movement, most notably helping to end legal segregation in the South. King received the 1964 Noble Peace Prize for his leadership in nonviolent protest.

Over 70 Christian leaders from various denominations spoke at the conference, delivering keynote addresses, leading breakout sessions, and participating in panels. The Gospel Coalition, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and the MLK50 Advisory Board co-sponsored the event.

The MLK50 Conference comes at a time of high racial tensions in the U.S., both inside and outside the Church. Conference speakers praised the work of King and his followers, and applauded contemporary successes in racial reconciliation. At the same time, they agreed on the broken state of race relations and the need for significant change.

A frequent theme of the conference focused on challenging the complacency of many white evangelicals regarding race relations. In a memorable opening keynote, ERLC President Russell D. Moore strongly rebuked the hypocrisy of white American Christians who profess to honor King’s legacy, yet remain aloof from or hostile to current issues of racial injustice.

“Jesus will build His church, and His church will be a testimony to the saving work of His blood,” Moore said. “The question is whether or not we will join with Him.”

Numerous other speakers issued strong challenges to the white Christian community to turn apologies and well-meaning words into tangible actions; to acknowledge the reality of past racist events; and to explicitly address racial injustice from the pulpit.

Conference speakers pleaded with American churches to couple their emphases on sound doctrine with an appreciation of practical ethics, spurring them toward societal engagement. John M. Perkins, the 87-year-old founder of the Christian Community Development Association, pointed out that Christians should be known by a love that unambiguously includes breaking down the barriers to racial unity. MLK50 speakers repeatedly cautioned that theological understanding alone is inadequate to advancing justice.

“We have reconciled ourselves to the idea of not loving our brothers and sisters of one blood,” said Perkins, himself a minister and civil rights pioneer.

In the most somber moment of the two-day conference, speakers and attendees left the Memphis Cook Convention Center to gather at the Lorraine Motel, the site of King’s assassination by James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968. At 6:01 p.m., members of the King family joined prominent civil rights leaders and a massive crowd in a moment of silence to commemorate the time of King’s death.

The Assemblies of God also has grappled recently with issues of racial injustice and inequality.

Michael Nelson, president of the AG National Black Fellowship, says he hopes the meeting keeps the slain civil rights leader’s dream alive.

“I pray that the 50th anniversary of King’s tragic death would create an occasion to reflect on where we have been and yet look ahead to where we must go, if we are going to deal with the racial division and racial issues that are still plaguing this country,” says Nelson, who is pastor of The House of Peace in Jacksonville, Florida.

Malcolm P. Burleigh, executive director of AG U.S. Missions and a member of the AG’s Executive Leadership Team in Springfield, Missouri, similarly exhorts the Church to take to heart the conference’s lessons on justice and reconciliation.

“The reason we’re not seeing change in the Body of Christ is that we are not heeding the words of our Lord and Savior to be unified,” Burleigh says. “I hope and pray this conference will be the first seeds of that change. There can be no reconciliation until there is recognition of sin.”

IMAGE - By Marion S. Trikosko - This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ppmsc.01269.

Nathan Heath

Nathan Heath is a graduate of Wheaton College in Illinois, with degrees in international relations and music. He also studied at Davidson College and the University of Oxford, and interned with TWR International, the U.S. House of Representatives, Opportunity International, and the Hudson Institute before working for a Virginia law firm.  Heath serves as the co-editor-in-chief of Integras: A Journal of Faith, Politics, and Society. He lives in Richmond, Virginia.