In his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. bemoaned the failure of white religious leaders in the South to embrace the cause of nonviolent change to the discriminatory voting and social practices that led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to focus on Birmingham, Alabama. Dr. King openly wondered what kind of God could be worshipped and proclaimed by churches that refused to embrace nonviolent resistance to race discrimination and political disenfranchisement. Forty years after King's death, it is noteworthy that except for North Carolina and Virginia, voters in southern states were not part of the dramatic voting that resulted in the election of Barack Obama as the next President of the United States. White voters who supported John Kerry in 2004 in those southern states turned out in fewer numbers for Obama in 2008. In comments published by news media after the election, some white southern voters expressed open resentment about the idea of a black person leading the nation as President.
In Martin King and former President Jimmy Carter, the South produced two Nobel Peace Prize honorees. Yet, Carter's open willingness to engage in cross-cultural peacemaking efforts in the United States and around the world has yet to be affirmed by religious leaders in the South. Although King and Carter were products of a long tradition of Baptist life, they remain prophets without honor in their home region. Carter, former President Bill Clinton, and former Vice President Al Gore, are known for their cross-cultural inclusiveness. Their appeals to other southerners to embrace Obama apparently fell on deaf ears.
Perhaps the South does not suffer from deafness, but from an equally disabling and potentially more profound condition. The fact that southern religious leaders and other opinion leaders remain unconvinced about (if not altogether hostile toward) the kind of social progress that marked King's ministry, Carter's political efforts, and Obama's call for inclusive political change reminds one of the Rip Van Winkle fairy tale. Washington Irving's delightful fairy tale is set in a New York village during the colonial era. However, its moral has profound and universal meaning. The tale is especially applicable to southern white voters and religious leaders who appear to have slept, like Rip Van Winkle, through the demographic, attitudinal, and other revolutions of the past four decades.
In his sermon, Sleeping through a Revolution, Dr. King emphasized that Van Winkle slept through the entire American Revolution. When Rip began his nap New York was a British Colony. When he awakened, New York was part of the United States. Rip lay down as a British subject. He awakened to find himself a citizen of the United States. Rip not only missed a few days but slept through the change of an entire era of world history.
Given the published comments of some southern white voters since the 2008 presidential election, one wonders whether the soul of the old Confederacy is merely asleep, or is comatose. One thing is clear. Like Van Winkle, the South desperately needs to be awakened. Comatose patients either awaken or die.