04/20/2012 11:54 am ET Updated Jun 20, 2012

Morehouse, Martin and the Methodists

Last week, I had the opportunity to sit and soak in the famous Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College. I'm an ordained United Methodist educator, and I've been in countless college chapels, ranging from the mundane to the spectacular. The Morehouse chapel isn't an architectural wonder, but in this room, on this day, it caught me off-guard.

As prelude to the event I was attending, the Dean of the chapel, Rev. Dr. Lawrence Edward Carter, Sr., recounted the pivotal role Morehouse played in laying the foundations on which Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led the civil rights movement. Dr. King's well-known efforts were built on the shoulders of many whose names may not be so well known, many of whom were educated in and around Morehouse College.

Sitting in the chapel that day, I calculated that a full century, plus one year, passed between the founding of Morehouse and the day Dr. King was assassinated. I pondered the progress that Dr. King's nonviolent movement achieved and the improvements I've witnessed in my own lifetime. Indeed, Barack Obama's presidency is a manifestation of this amazing progress in the American saga. But as Dr. King knew all too well, those who benefit from unseen privilege and economic usurpation are wily, adaptable and persistent.

I was reminded yet again that the work of change is neither fast nor easy. Social transformation requires a community of believers -- regardless of their doctrinal convictions -- to have faith in the journey.

My mind then wandered to the upcoming quadrennial meeting for which my fellow United Methodists are preparing in Tampa later this month. I'm admittedly restless with the often-sluggish pace of change in my own denomination. We have important decisions to make together, not only for the future of our own brand of Christianity but also for our prophetic role in bringing about peace and justice in the world. Surely, we Methodists have much to learn from the example of Dr. King.

Sitting there at Morehouse, I recalled when I first moved to Southern California in the mid 1990s, which was still aching from the uprising in South Central Los Angeles. This April marks the 20th anniversary of that period of civil unrest that followed the Rodney King verdict. Almost 25 years following Dr. King's assassination, the L.A. riots were a warning sign that our progress was not what we would like to believe.

And as if to punctuate this point, I was brought out of my reverie and back to my seat by the penetrating analysis of the day's speaker. Attorney Michelle Alexander is the author of "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," and what she had to say that day eviscerated any delusions that the goal for which Dr. King paid the ultimate price has been achieved. Those who benefit from injustice to the poor and vulnerable have been busy in the years since Dr. King, implementing systemic injustice by means of a racial caste structure centered in our penal system and the so-called War on Drugs.

By our gullibility and inattention, we are all responsible for perpetuating the problem. Our failure to pay attention to the substance beyond the sensationalism of the L.A. riots is only an egregious manifestation of such gullibility and inattention. We have not seen what has been staring us in the face: that we have legalized discrimination in a new and devastating way.

It's my responsibility -- as a seminary and university president, as a United Methodist, as an American -- to understand this and to help others of privilege understand. Discrimination has not been vanquished; the struggle for justice and equality has not been finished.

We must not betray the promise of America by continuing to turn a blind eye to the plight of the oppressed in our midst. It is up to us to take up the cause of social justice for which Dr. King and many others struggled. We are all responsible to step forward to eradicate once and for all the existing racial caste system in the United States of America.