By Eboo Patel
One hundred years ago, the great African-American scholar W.E.B. DuBois famously wrote, “The problem of the 20th century will be the problem of the color line.”
History proved DuBois correct. His century saw the struggles against, and ultimately the victory over, systems that separated and subjugated people based on race — from colonialism in India to Jim Crow in the U.S. to apartheid in South Africa.
No American did more than Martin Luther King Jr. — whom America pauses to honor today — to address the problem of the color line. He spearheaded the marches that revealed the brutality of segregation, made speeches that reminded Americans that the promise of their nation applied to all citizens and expertly pressured the nation’s leaders in Washington to pass landmark civil rights legislation.
But to confine King’s role in history only to the color line — as giant as that challenge is, and as dramatic as King’s contribution was — is to reduce his greatness. In one of his final books, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, King showed that race was one part of his broader concern with human relations at large: “This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited … a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together — black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu … Because we can never again live apart, we must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”
This ethos, as King’s examples make clear, applies not only to the question of race, but to faith as well. In the same way as the headlines of the 20th century read of conflict between races, headlines in our times are full of violence between people of different religions. Indeed, what the color line was to the 20th century, the faith line might be to the 21st.