Dr. King was misunderstood by many in both the Black community and the White. The most acute misunderstandings came from the predominantly White, so-called Bible-believing community. Dr. King’d theological dynamic gave him a biblical message and method that conformed neither to the White conservative agenda nor to the White liberal agenda.
Sadly, many White evangelical, fundamentalist, and Reformed churches were caught sleeping with no oil in their lamps at the outbreak of this move of God in the land. They had evidently been rendered dysfunctional by a defective view of theology and culture. They failed to distinguish between White standards and scriptural standards. Their theology had led them to a preoccupation with private salvation.
The importance of personal salvation should never be diminished, But the whole counsel of God revealed in the Scriptures goes far beyond the scope of the private realm. According to God’s Word, even, salvation itself finds its significance in terms of a much larger picture—namely,the praise of God’s glory (Ephesians 1-2). But many leading evangelicals never came to grips with the big picture of God’s purposes. They never saw the broad cultural implications of the Great Commission. This is why their Christianity never had application beyond the private aspects of life. Many believed that America’s racial injustices would fade away automatically as more individuals had conversion experiences. This naive view completely ignored the patterns of racism that had been woven into the American system.
The fundamentalist reaction was much harsher. Fundamentalists and right-wing politicians branded Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement as “communistic.” Though there was no evidence for such allegations, the label effectively scared off some potential supporters. The Civil Rights Movement and the words of King were beginning to strike at the very root of the White Christianity-ism that supported the political, economic and social system in which they had a vested interest.
Many fundamentalists and evangelicals saw the message of Brother Martin as an experience in futility in light of the total dichotomy between “the sweet by-and-by” and “the nasty now-and-now.” They saw Dr. King as absurdly “bothering to polish the brass and rearrange the furniture on the Titanic.” According to them, “he should have been getting people ‘saved’ in these ‘last days’and not been concerned with eating at lunch counters….”
-Carl F. Ellis Jr., Free At Last: The Gospel in the African American Experience, 81-82.