MLK Day commemorations may look different this year, amid the pandemic and National Mall and park closures.

MLK Day commemorations may look different this year, amid the pandemic and National Mall and park closures.

“I am not interested in most conversations about equality. To whom would you like to be equal, given a broken and morally bankrupt system? Do you want to be equal to the persons, forces, and systems which generate the very terms of your oppression? I am, however, interested in the weightier matters of law: justice and freedom. How can we act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly?”- Rev. Dr. Yolanda Pierce

Rev. Dr. Yolanda Pierce joins us to discuss how we can go beyond conversations of equality and address core structural issues of racism and injustice in the United States. Rev. Dr. Yolanda Pierce is a professor and the dean of Howard University School of Divinity. In the Divinity School’s 150-year history, she is the first woman to be named Dean. We’ll also discuss how to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, the Black church in the Civil Rights Era and her upcoming book, “In My Grandmother’s House: Black Women, Faith, and the Stories We Inherit.”

Produced by Inés Rénique and Lauren Markoe


  • Rev. Dr. Yolanda Pierce Dean, Howard University School of Divinity; @YNPierce


  • 12:00:03

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast it's Kojo For Kids with Illustrator and Author Brian Pinkney. But first, today we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day at what we can only describe as an extraordinary moment in our country's history. Less than two weeks after a white supremacist mob stormed the Capitol and two days before the country inaugurates a new president and vice president. And while MLK's legacy endures we're also facing stark reminders of just how far we have to go.

  • 12:00:37

    KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss all this and to discuss Rev. Dr. Martin Luther Jr. and he means at this moment in our country's history, joining us is Rev. Dr. Yolanda Pierce, the Dean of the Howard University School of Divinity where she's also a professor of African American Religion and Literature. Dr. Yolanda Pierce, thank you so for joining us.

  • 12:01:02

    REV. DR. YOLANDA PIERCEThank you so much for having me on. It's an honor to speak with you.

  • 12:01:06

    NNAMDIRev. Dr. Pierce, we're about to inaugurate a new president and vice president, the first vice president of color and the first woman in that role. But for many it's a bittersweet milestone with the seat of our democracy on military lockdown. What are your thoughts on where we currently are as a country?

  • 12:01:25

    PIERCEIt is indeed a bittersweet moment. The fact that those of us particularly who live in the D.C. area are watching as our entire city has become a military zone. On one hand we acknowledge the amazing accomplishments of Senator Harris soon to be Vice President Harris. But we also know that this has not been a peaceful transition of power. And so we're really, I think taking seriously how fragile, in fact democracy is. Something that King always reminded us of.

  • 12:02:01

    NNAMDITwo historic Black churches were targeted by the earlier pro-Trump extremists gathering in December. Can we start with a little history around the rise of Black churches in this country? What did that look like?

  • 12:02:15

    PIERCEAfrican American churches in the United States are founded as protest movements. They are founded as resistance against white supremacy and racism. Many African Americans were allowed to worship in white churches if they sat in the back or if they sat in the balcony. But eventually, beginning with the African Methodist Episcopal Church and other denominations African Americans created their own institutions, their own churches, their own ways of worship. Now of course, they had been doing that in secret in what we call the invisible institution of the Black church a long time before they had actual church buildings.

  • 12:02:54

    PIERCEBut this is a movement, this is connected to a resistance to the ways in which African Americans have always experienced racism and discrimination in this country, and so it's not just the Black church as a building, but the Black church as a powerful resistance. It has been such a tragedy to see in Washington D.C. the two African American churches that were targeted, their Black Lives Matter signs ripped down, understanding that this fits in with the history of African Americans being persecuted for their religious beliefs.

  • 12:03:30

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Rev. Dr. Yolanda Pierce, Dean of the Howard University School of Divinity where she's also a Professor of African American Religion and Literature. We're talking about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on this his day so to speak. Dr. Pierce, parts of the Bible were used to justify oppression and slavery. How was this inconsistency addressed by the earliest Black churches and their leaders?

  • 12:03:53

    PIERCESo the Bible has been used by people who are for and against any particular position since its founding, right. So within the United States there were pro-slavery theologians and ministers, who sought to use the Bible to justify enslavement. African Americans always resisted this. They always resisted this interpretation. They pointed to liberating aspects of the text, how Jesus said that he came, so that all could be free and free indeed.

  • 12:04:24

    PIERCEWhat African Americans did is to read the fullness of the text and insist that at the heart of the Gospel is a message of social justice. At the heart of the text, of the scripture, of the Bible is this impetus for all people to not only be free, but to have dignity and their humanity. And so what they did was simply counter every single point that pro-slavery and later racist theologians would lift up in the text and they would offer the counterpoint to it.

  • 12:04:55

    PIERCEThere were even some like the grandmother of themed theologian Howard Thurman who said, "I won't even read the text that are keeping me in bondage, that are insisting upon my silence, that are somehow trying to strip my humanity away." And so the African American church has always read the text differently with the heart of humanity and human dignity at its center and core.

  • 12:05:22

    NNAMDIBut what took it out of the church buildings? What led to the rise of Black preachers as both community and even national leaders like Dr. King?

  • 12:05:32

    PIERCEIt started actually on the plantations of enslavement in which the African American preacher was often the only person who could actually read, had literacy. And so that person became a community representative, became a spokesperson. And so we see that literally 250 years ago. So what Dr. King represents, we have seen in the Black community, since its very origins in this country, a minister who weds together politics and faith, that those two things have never been separate that they've always existed hand in hand. To be a person of faith is to be political, and to be political if you are a person of faith is to put front and center your theological beliefs, but also your political beliefs.

  • 12:06:21

    NNAMDIMuch of the civil rights movement was birthed in Black churches. However, there were also Black church leaders who opposed Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement. Can you talk about, you know, the fact is he was actually kicked out of the National Baptist Convention by Rev. Joseph Jackson. But can you talk about the role of Black churches during the course of history during that time? What led to some of that conflict?

  • 12:06:52

    PIERCESo I love that you point that out, because I think that that is really important to note in our history. We have an iconic King that we think everyone loved. But during his day King was not popular even among African Americans and certainly among the larger white Christian audience. People thought King was too radical. They thought he wanted too much too soon. That included African Americans. That included some churches who, well, some of them actually feared the violence that could potentially happen in the wake of King coming to their pulpits.

  • 12:07:28

    PIERCEAnd that's of course historically true. That places that King visited sometimes there was violence, sometimes there were bombings. And so there was some churches that resisted King only, because they really feared that something would happen in their communities. But there were other who thought, well, you're asking for too much too soon. But King would often preach about "the fierce urgency of now" saying that in fact what we cannot do is this wait, wait, wait gradual approach.

  • 12:07:57

    PIERCEWe had been trying that since 1865. "That fierce urgency of now, " and King insisted that rights were to be demanded not politely asked for, but to be demanded. And that legislation would have to change. Some African American churches were very fearful of that message and he was not popular in his lifetime the way that we kind of think of him as a saint today. He would be quite surprised to know how many people quote his words when they resisted his message in the 1960s.

  • 12:08:29

    NNAMDINot to mention all of the people who opposed his position on the Vietnam War, but that's another story.

  • 12:08:34

    PIERCEAbsolutely. Absolutely.

  • 12:08:36

    NNAMDIHere is Teresa in Arlington, Virginia. Teresa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:08:42

    TERESAHi, professor. I'm so glad to be able to hear you today. I did want to talk to you about the "urgency of now," because people remember his speeches, "I Have a Dream" speech and that was kind of as I recall impromptu, but his speech, the purpose was to get five main points of what had to change now. And when we're talking now that was like 100 years after emancipation. And that now was like the late 1963.

  • 12:09:09

    TERESASo he accomplished -- or I guess our society accomplished three out of five. But the first one was to absolutely prevent police violence on Blacks and the fifth point he made, which has not been accomplished was that all Blacks should have the right to vote and not have their vote suppressed. And right now we're seeing Black Lives Matter essentially, because a Black man was killed in public view a million times over and it was police violence. That's the same thing that MLK talked about.

  • 12:09:46

    PIERCEAnd then you talk about suppression, his fifth point, well, I mean, the fact that mostly Black communities, their votes were the ones that were going to be disenfranchised, just eliminated or erased by the 60 losses. So what do you think about that because it's still here today.

  • 12:10:08

    NNAMDIDr. Pierce, of course, the "I Have a Dream" was not exactly impromptu. It was prompted by Mahalia Jackson who said, "Tell them about the dream, Martin." But go ahead, please, Dr. Pierce.

  • 12:10:18

    PIERCEYeah, so regarding, "I Have a Dream" you're exactly correct that this was something -- rhetorical troupe that he used in many of his sermons. And Mahalia Jackson during the March on Washington prompted him as she felt the audience really, really needed that kind of motivation. But, thank you to the caller. I would just absolutely agree with you that what to me seems to be such a disingenuous moment is that you have these political figures who are telling people even today on Facebook and Twitter, "Oh, we recognize and acknowledge the wonderful legacy of Dr. King." Those were the same people who voted for or tried to figure out whether or not these majority Black cities and their votes were fraudulent.

  • 12:11:03

    PIERCESo in fact, King was prophetic and by prophetic, I mean, that he was someone who spoke truth to power. He understood the suppression of the vote to be the number one tool that would undermine democracy. King was right in 1963, and King is right in 2021.

  • 12:11:21

    NNAMDIRev. Dr. Yolanda Pierce is the Dean of the Howard University School of Divinity where she's also a Professor of African American Religion and Literature. We're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation with Dr. Yolanda Pierce. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:11:55

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Rev. Dr. Yolanda Pierce, Dean of the Howards University School of Divinity commemorating Martin Luther King Day at a time when we're witnessing ongoing racial injustice. Dr. Pierce, how can we improve the way we teach American history in schools so as not to quoting here, "flatten out the Black experiences," you've said. And, please, explain what that means.

  • 12:12:19

    PIERCEOne of the things I think is most important is for us to historically emphasize the rich, religious diversity of early America. With Africans, who came to this country, who were brought here in chains, we see the practice of many different religious traditions. Something like 15, 20, 25 percent of enslaved Africans were practicing Muslims. Many of them were practicing Christians. Many of them also practiced traditional African religions. So what's important for me is that we really grab a hold of how religiously diverse African Americans have always been.

  • 12:12:59

    PIERCEThat's important, because by the time we look at King and the Civil Rights movement we look at Black Jewish coalitions, we look at African Americans in conversations with Hindu Americans, we are not just seeing American Christianity. What we see today is the way in which every time we talk about religious faith, people thing we're talking about white American Christianity and the religious right, but there has always been an incredibly progressive religious leftist movement of which African Americans have been a part along with our brothers and sisters who are Jewish Americans. And we have to talk about that, to say people of faith is not to say conservatives and religious right.

  • 12:13:41

    NNAMDIHere now is Nata in North Carolina. Nata, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:13:50

    NATAThank you so much and it's a true pleasure and joy to hear you speak with Rev. Dr. Yolanda Pierce. My question actually is in response to the question you posed right before the break about the relationship between the Black Lives Matter movement and the Black church. And I was wondering if Dr. Pierce, she'd be willing to speak to the issue of the role specifically of women and Black women. I know you have a new book coming out on grandmothers and the Black church and their stories. I noticed that you posted that on Twitter.

  • 12:14:25

    NATAAnd I'm really curious given that the Black Lives Matter movement was led by Black women and gender nonconforming women and given that it's King Day, but that in honor of Martin Luther King I always think we have to honor the hard working Black women in the churches who participated and mobilized, right, those boycotts. And so could you just speak to the image -- the issue of the role specifically of Black women and how that leaks, since you're the first Black woman dean at Howard University.

  • 12:15:02


  • 12:15:03

    NNAMDINata demonstrates that our callers are always ahead of me. You've got that new book coming out next month. It's called "In My Grandmother's House Black Women, Faith and the Stories We Inherit." So you can include that in your response to Nata.

  • 12:15:18

    PIERCEThank you. That is such an important question. So when we just earlier mentioned Mahalia Jackson one of the things we have to talk about is the ways in which African American women funded the Civil Rights movement. They didn't get to the March on Washington without African American women. Someone like Mahalia Jackson, who gave concerts and raised money for King, but even small things, African American women who would cook in church basements and sell the fish and chicken dinners and use that money to support ministers and young people going to marches, going to rallies, bailing them out of jail.

  • 12:15:57

    PIERCEWe have to talk about the Black women who were themselves civil rights leaders, of course, like a Fannie Lou Hamer, but I want to connect it to Black Lives Matter movement today. Many of the Black Lives Matter movement leaders are queer folks. They are women. They are gender nonconforming, you name it. Many of them would consider themselves spiritual, but not religious. I point that out to say that there's still a moral compass coming from the Black Lives Matter movement that is deeply spiritual and fits this legacy of the African American religious tradition.

  • 12:16:34

    PIERCEWe have to give respect to the women, who were never given the credit, who never given the byline, who were never given the opportunity to speak in their churches and even in institutional settings, who are now demanding a place to speak and are also opening doors for others who have been marginalized even within the African American community itself.

  • 12:16:57

    NNAMDIAnd thank you very much for your call, Nata. Let's move on to Charlie in Laytonville, Maryland. Charlie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:17:06

    CHARLIEHi, Professor Pierce. I'd like to bring up the question of Rev. Raphael Warnock who's the current pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church and the senator-elect coming in as senator from Georgia. And the question I have is how will his role as senator do you think affect his ability to continue as minister of that church? Will he have to tone down his interpretations?

  • 12:17:41

    NNAMDIAre you asking whether he can walk and chew gum at the same time? I don't know. I'll have Dr. Pierce respond.

  • 12:17:47

    PIERCENo, that's a great question because all of his sermons will be scrutinized with a magnifying glass. And so anything that he says will be looked at with an extra, you know, careful lens. I will say that I believe that Dr. Warnock who is preacher now senator, pastor, but is also a scholar and holds a PhD in theology is well able to hold together the tensions of the office and ministry. I think that he would argue, as I would, as someone who does liberation and womanist theology that telling the truth is the Gospel, to speak truth is the Gospel.

  • 12:18:31

    PIERCEAnd in as much as his platform will be the pulpit on Sunday morning or literally in the House in the Senate then in fact his ability to speak truth to represent his constituents, to talk about the evils of our day including the industrial prison complex and all of the issues that we know will rise as part of his senatorial time, I think that he's going to be able to hold that together.

  • 12:18:53

    PIERCEIt speaks to what I suggested earlier that people of faith, it is imperative for them to speak from their positions of faith. Those are political positions in addition to being theological and ideological positions. I think Dr. Warnock's got this. And I look forward to seeing how this is going to unfold over the next two years of his term.

  • 12:19:13

    NNAMDICole Bear in Capitol Heights, Maryland, did Dr. Pierce just answer your question?

  • 12:19:20

    COLENo, sir. My question was regarding towards when we look from Dr. King and then moving to the Reagan administration and prosperity Gospel in Afro American church or Black church, what does that look like when we think about prosperity gospel and all that brings and also this new activism and Black Lives Matter movement? How does the Black church balance all of that?

  • 12:19:47

    NNAMDIDr. Pierce.

  • 12:19:48

    PIERCEGreat. That's an excellent question. Thank you for bringing up the prosperity gospel. I recognize that the prosperity gospel is a modern movement in which individuals believe that the evidence of their blessing is the fact that they're prosperous. I think that this would be antonym -- this would be heresy to Dr. King. Dr. King always believed in the power of human dignity particularly for the poor. He spent his entire life and certainly the end of his life before he was killed, before he was assassinated, marching on behalf of the most marginalized, marching on behalf of sanitation workers, trying to dismantle the ways in which the rich and the one percent have disproportionately harmed -- whether it's to harm the environment, whether it is harm the economy, whether it harms our ethos as a nation.

  • 12:20:41

    PIERCEAnd so I would argue that for someone, who centered himself in liberationist theology that is the belief that God is on the side of the marginalized, the oppressed and the least of these that Dr. King would reject the prosperity gospel. And instead embrace what his message has been for all along, when you uplift the least of the society then everyone else is uplifted. And that definition of prosperity has nothing to do with the wealthy, but it has everything to do with those whose souls and hearts have leaned themselves towards justice.

  • 12:21:17

    NNAMDIWell, clearly so many people want to speak with you and to speak about this topic, Dr. Pierce that I'm going to ask you to stick around for a while longer after we take this short break. We won't take up the rest of your day just a few more minutes of your time. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:21:55

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Rev. Dr. Yolanda Pierce, Dean of the Howard University School of Divinity. We were talking about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the context of the Black church. Here now is Jeff in Washington D.C. Jeff, your turn.

  • 12:22:12

    JEFFHi, Dr. Pierce and Kojo. It's good to talk to both of you again. My question is around comments that were on an article that was basically printed about Rev. Warnock and Jeremiah Wright. As you know, Dr. Pierce, we had Dr. Wright, Sunday, which is traditionally called "Preach" yesterday at Howard's Chapel. And he spoke about his relationship with President Obama. But my comment specifically is on Black liberation theology. How do you think Rev. Warnock will be different from what we've experienced in the Black church around Black liberation theology and in the legislation in the Senate?

  • 12:22:58

    PIERCEI think that Dr. Warnock really will represent the holding together of the tension that we often see in the Black church. It's a theology that fits well within Christian orthodoxy. Most African American Christians affirm what we would call a fairly orthodox belief of the trinity, for example, of God or Jesus, and yet it is politically and socially liberal. So you have Dr. Warnock being unequivocal in the fact that he is a prochoice pastor.

  • 12:23:29

    PIERCEAnd so what I think I like about what I'm seeing with Dr. Warnock is that he really is not only a student of liberation theology, but we have to name the greatest liberation theologian of them all which is the late Dr. James Cone. And so Dr. James Cone along with a cohort of other African American theologians in the 1960s and the 1970s simply said this -- they said, "If God is not for us, the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, then we've got to do a better job of telling people who God is." And so I think we're going to really see someone who is not going to be ashamed of his faith in terms of the office of Dr. Warnock, but someone who is also going to be incredibly progressive in his politics.

  • 12:24:16

    PIERCEI see that he is going to be introducing legislation, prison reform, perhaps even prison abolition during his time in Senate. He says that as a tenant of his faith in as much as that's also a political position. I think that we have to be ready for the fact that the late Dr. Cone is also going to be a part of this discussion as Dr. Warnock's teacher, but as one of the greatest theologians in the of the 20th century as well. Thank you so much. That was a great question.

  • 12:24:43

    NNAMDIAnd finally, Dr. Pierce, many consider today a day of service or of giving back by volunteering in some way, maybe challenging to do that right now. What do you typically do to honor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?

  • 12:24:57

    PIERCEI love that people do this day of service, but I remind people that part of what King calls us to do is to think about our own complicity and what's happening in our nation. So there are people who cannot do service projects right now, but I think all of us can ask ourselves where have we been silent when we should speak. It isn't so much that King condemned white racism. He did in fact do that, but he condemned white silence. He condemned when people were quiet when they should have spoken up.

  • 12:25:30

    PIERCEEvery one of us has a voice whether that's through social media, whether that's in our families, whether that's in our communities. If all of the people had talked to their family members about the election and told the truth, I doubt we would have seen the insurrection we've seen at the Capitol building last week. So I am suggesting that in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, we can no longer be silent about racism, about micro aggressions, about the ways in which we do harm, because we are afraid to speak out. I tell people, Speak the truth even if your voice shakes.

  • 12:26:07

    NNAMDIRev. Dr. Yolanda Pierce is the first female Dean of the Howard University School of Divinity. She's also a Professor of African American Religion and Literature. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:26:19

    PIERCEThank you so much for having me. It's just a pleasure to be on your show.

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