New Orleans Baptist leader: King understood the Gospel is what will set us free

by Karen L. Willoughby, |

NEW ORLEANS, La. (Christian Examiner) – First a cross was burned in their yard. Then, the entire house was torched for no apparent reason.

The Fountain family was not an activist family. They were just Black—George Fountain was a construction worker—and this was rural northeast Louisiana in 1965.

"This kind of threat to your family is real," said Leroy Fountain, now church health strategist for the New Orleans Baptist Association. "You're afraid. You're angry. When we talk about terrorism today, Black people have lived with that."

Black people lived through that, through the tumultuous, terror-filled years of the birth of the Civil Rights Movement. This—the 1940s through the '60s and in some cases, beyond-—was a time in American history when Black World War II veterans learned the unfair truth that they could bleed and die for their country, but they could not sit at a table in a restaurant, were relegated to the balconies of movie theaters, and, were barred from hotels and even restroom facilities at gas stations.

Blacks could not swim in public swimming pools, could not drink out of "Whites Only" water fountains, could not question whatever they were told by a White person.

Fathers taught their sons to keep their eyes lowered and get out of the way of Whites passing them on the sidewalks, to never wave at a passing vehicle for fear a white woman might be inside who would take offense, to "wait for our time" for the "separate but equal" status quo to be changed in America.

"My parents were Christian, always teaching God will provide and will take care of us," Fountain told Christian Examiner. "Young people, college students mostly, were impatient, chafing when their parents said, 'Don't get involved with this or I'll lose my job.'

"There was something in the air," Fountain said. "As Victor Hugo once said, "Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come."

Large numbers of college students, who did not comprehend the danger, volunteered to go on bus rides, sit in at lunch counters, walk in marches, and adults trained them to withstand the verbal and physical abuse they knew would come. Movies such as 2014's "Selma," still in theaters, 2013's "The Butler," 2010's "Freedom Riders," 1988's "Mississippi Burning" and several others show in graphic detail some of what participants in the Civil Rights Movement endured.

"When you talk about Martin Luther King, Jr., the vision he cast for a new American and a new world, I think that's a lasting legacy," Fountain said. "Then to work to have the Voting Rights Act and all the things that followed, that could possibly be the great legacy in my life and in the lives of people in my generation."

Before the Voting Rights Act was passed, election officials were able to keep Blacks from voting, because they did not have the money to pay a poll tax, did not have a voter to vouch for them, and had to "satisfactorily answer" a series of questions designed to cause the Black to give up their desire to vote.

"Other things changed too," the Baptist leader continued. "There was school integration and officials elected who could fight for resources in education. ... That has to be part of Dr. King's legacy. He helped us see the fallacy of separate but equal. Equal will eventually be the death nail for separate."

The Civil Rights Movement opened doors of opportunity that would not have opened in a previous era, Fountain said. His parents always pushed education, but being in a rural community, college was not a real option when he was a child.

A college degree opened doors to a career, which for him became ministry.

What Fountain said he now realizes is corporations who once sought Black workers no longer do so.

"We have adopted a theory now that you don't have to have Black people to attract Black people; more and more that is the thinking," Fountain said. "There are reversals in other areas too.

"In the 1960s and '70s there was a push to integrate schools but now ... if you can afford to send your kids to private school, you get a tax cut. It's just about back to where it was in the 1960s. More and more that's what we're seeing in select communities nationwide. That's also paralleling segregated neighborhoods. We have pockets of them all over the country."

Even more disturbing—and more revealing—is that the cordial relationships people have at work don't translate into after-hour friendships.

"If you see me outside the workplace you get a better idea of who I am," Fountain said. "You hear my natural voice rather than my workplace voice.

As a Black male in a majority White world, Fountain said he has to be multicultural in ways White people do not.

"I have to read books by White people, but you don't have to read books by Black people," Fountain cited as one example. "I have to slip into and out of different cultures. ... There are social codes and certain cultural codes you have to know to communicate, to be accepted."

When Fountain lived and worked in Atlanta for the North American Mission Board, he would travel two or three times a month, often with colleagues. They would tease him about wearing a suit and tie when they were in flip flops and jeans.

"To be less threatening, I overdress," Fountain said. "It can anger you to have to explain that to someone in flip flops who doesn't feel [he appears] threatening.

"Back to the question of Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy, I think his vision is still unfulfilled, unrealized," the Baptist leader said. "He's not around to challenge us to live the Word of God. It's easy to love Jesus now, when he's not walking the dusty roads. As long as we can contain Him and encase Him in a book, we think we're doing okay.

"If the truth of the gospel is incarcerated in a book and it's not free to infect society, it does not set people free. ... The only thing that will free us from those incarcerating forces, habits, addictions – even of work or play – that keep us from living out the Great Commandment is the truth of the Gospel; that's what will set us free."