To King and many other Christians, racial justice was core to the biblical message. Racial segregation and the other ills it created — like the wealth gap, unemployment and under-education — were an affront to the image of God in all people. Christians had an obligation to transform the systems and laws that allowed racial inequality to persist.
Many white evangelicals agreed with King’s affirmation of racial equality. They may have believed all people should be treated fairly. They objected to the notion that the government should play a role in bringing about equality and that Christians should concern themselves with material issues rather than simply focusing on conversion.
This difference in approach continues to the present day. In “Divided by Faith,” sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith describe how many white evangelicals emphasize personal salvation and tend to view themselves as individuals rather than members of a race, which affects their view of racial issues overall.