Ten days before Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, he spoke to the Rabbinical Assembly, an association of Conservative Jewish clergy. He was introduced by another great religious leader of the civil-rights era: Abraham Joshua Heschel. “Where does moral leadership in America come from today?” Heschel asked. “Where does God dwell in America today?”
In retrospect, it’s easy to identify the voices of moral leadership during that time in history. In his new book, American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice, the emeritus Princeton professor Albert J. Raboteau gives short accounts of the lives of King and Heschel, along with A.J. Muste, the anti-war activist; Dorothy Day, a leader of the Catholic Worker Movement; Howard Thurman, the civil-rights leader; Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk; and Fannie Lou Hamer, the voting-rights activist. Each of these figures drew from his or her faith, and each had a remarkable affect on politics.
But, as Raboteau writes, they were also rejected and criticized. They were prophetic voices, he argues, which necessarily means they spoke from the margins of culture. It’s not easy to understand prophesy in progress.
This is especially true today, during a time of major division over a hate-filled presidential race and protest against police killings in places like Charlotte, North Carolina, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. Many radical voices are speaking out from the margins, but they’re different from those who spoke out 50 years ago: for one thing, fewer seem to be explicitly religious. And while many Americans seem ready for a prophetic figure, they are radically split over whether that figure should be someone like Donald J. Trump or a movement like Black Lives Matter.