TERRE HAUTE —
As the years pass, America becomes more vulnerable to complacency about the quest for racial equality in the land, epitomized through the work of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
People start questioning the 21st-century relevance of civil rights-era laws, community awareness efforts and diversity programs. They assume the words that Thomas Jefferson wrote and King famously repeated — that “all men are created equal” — are now structurally embedded in our democratic society, and that the quest is complete, at least as much as humanly possible.
Yet, if Americans look honestly at the culture, there is plenty of evidence that the struggle “to form a more perfect union” needs to press on, even as a unique confluence occurs. The second inauguration of the country’s first black president, Barack Obama, coincides with Monday’s 28th observance of the Martin Luther King national holiday. Indeed, it will be a landmark moment, exemplifying the progress made since the protest marches King led in the 1950s and ’60s. Still, some hurdles have not been cleared.
Consider one of King’s most challenging quotations: “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.”
A 2010 study at Baylor University concluded that nine out of 10 congregations in the U.S. continue to have one racial group that accounts for 80 percent or more of the church’s members. The researchers’ work, entitled “Race, Diversity and Membership Duration in Religious Congregations,” was published in an academic journal, Sociological Inquiry, and cited in an Associated Baptist Press report that year.
The study found several reasons behind the lack of diversity, drawn from a survey of more than 100,000 worshippers from 400 congregations and more than 50 faith groups, the Baptist Press stated. Racial animosity is not a primary cause, the Baylor researchers said. Instead, habit and familiarity — or the lack thereof — prompts the under-represented racial group to leave or not join a congregation. “People choose churches where they feel comfortable,” Kevin Dougherty, assistant professor of sociology at Baylor, told the Baptist Press in 2010. “Maybe they get challenged there, but they’re going for comfort.” As a result, other institutions such as schools, the armed services and workplaces, are more diverse.
Churches and worship places have not ignored the situation, and Terre Haute area congregations in particular have coordinated efforts to encourage diversity in their memberships. But, as the Baylor statistics show, the job is not finished. And, it is not alone the burden of religious bodies.
On this weekend when the United States of America honors King’s memory and marks the historic inauguration of President Obama, we should all reflect on the extent of our progress in embracing people of all races in all of our institutions, from social groups to trade organizations, golf leagues and service clubs.
The nation has advanced, but should not slow or pause its steps forward toward full realization of King’s dream.