The Rev. Dr. Raphael Gamaliel Warnock is the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, which was once the home church of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. The Huffington Post caught up with Pastor Warnock to chat about the state of black lives in America, and continuing Dr. King's legacy.
What is the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday like at Ebenezer?
The Martin Luther King Jr. day holiday and the Sunday prior to the actual holiday are always an exciting time at Ebenezer Baptist church, the spiritual home of Dr. King. As you might imagine, there are a number of people still around in our congregation who knew “ML,” as they call him. Some of his classmates and his family are here. So it is special in that way for all of us here at Ebenezer, even as we take stock again of his extraordinary impact on our country and indeed the entire world.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday before the holiday is a time of deep reflection upon what it means to expand Dr. King’s legacy in a new century. And so issues around mass incarceration, America’s prison industrial complex, the widening gap of inequality in America, the lack of commitment to public education, climate change -- these are all issues that get addressed on any given Sunday at Ebenezer, but they come into sharp focus.
Is this year different somehow?
The events of the last five months, and really the last two or three years, bring into sharp focus the relevance of Dr. King’s work. People are understanding how far we have to go. Racism has proven to be extraordinarily resourceful and flexible in its ability to reinvent itself in each era. We went from slavery to Jim Crow segregation to the new Jim Crow -- a social caste system where the hand of justice is in effect an instrument of social control, and millions of young black Americans, in particular, young black men, are stuck at the bottom of the well. We’re living in a moment where one in three black men can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime. Because of this, the discrimination that an earlier generation fought against is now legal -- job discrimination, housing discrimination, being denied voting rights. The criminal justice system is now a profit-driven industry based on the warehousing of black American lives and that’s the moment we’re living in right now after gaining voting rights.
Dr. King has become a mythical figure in American hearts and minds. Do you feel the weight of his legacy?
I feel no pressure to be or to channel Dr. King in a new century. I think all of us are called to our moment and to our place in time, to actualize our best gifts and to recognize our lives become significant when we turn them over to a cause larger than ourselves. Somehow, we all have to find our voice within those efforts.
What is the great burden on your heart as you look at the state of Black Lives in America?
There are many. The tragic killings we witnessed in Ferguson with Michael Brown and in New York with Eric Garner are sad casualties in a moment where young black men have effectively been presented as public enemy number one. That’s the deep burden on the hearts of black parents across the country. It’s deeper than the issue of police brutality. This won’t be solved by body cameras and sensitivity training. America has to come to terms with the tragic set of public policy decisions it has made over the past 35 years in which we witnessed the emergence of the prison industrial complex. We need to find the political will to address the fact that the land of freedom has become the incarceration capital of the world.
What is one saying of Dr. King’s that you’re holding close to your heart this year?
As I consider our struggles in fits and starts, somehow, in my ear I heard Dr. King saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” We have to do all we can to bend that arc and that’ what I’ve committed my life to.
What is your dream for America in the coming year?
That we will renew our commitment to justice, so that we will think beyond the next political cycle and elections and begin to think and work in a serious way towards a better future for the next generation. That we will have some imaginary, bold leaders who are willing to do the things necessary to ensure our long term future and to ensure that young children in America, regardless of what side of town they were born in, have a real chance.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.