MLK's 'I Have a Dream' speech

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses thousands who gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963 at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE / August 28, 1963)

"It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning…"

Martin Luther King Jr.

Since King first raised the issue of race and religion more than 50 years ago, much has changed. Just how different things are now is apparent on opposite ends of John Young Parkway.

On the north end is Church in the Son, a multiracial congregation founded in 2000 by Alex Clattenburg, former pastor of Calvary Assembly. Clattenburg said his 4,000-member church, in which the congregation is about half minority, reflects that many faiths now accept all people regardless of race or ethnicity.

The congregation was largely white and middle-class until the church decided it wanted to become more inclusive. In the past five years, the church has dramatically increased its minority membership. And once it welcomed more diverse congregants, the church didn't relegate them to the pews, but included them in positions of responsibility as well, Clattenburg said.

"It's not 'I love you and sit down.' You let them be in leadership," he said.

Alfreda Huntington attended a predominantly black church before joining Church in the Son about five years ago. She wasn't specifically looking for a multiracial church, but the diversity she found inside the sanctuary reflected more closely the integrated world in which she lives.

"I always had a problem with all black people going to one church and all white people in other churches," said Huntington. "I just didn't like the fact everybody was segregated."

Research by sociologist Michael Emerson of Rice University in Houston found that nondenominational "megachurches" such as Church in the Son are far more likely to be diverse than smaller churches, which are more likely to be bound by tradition and dogma. The number of diverse evangelical churches of 1,000 members or more has grown from 6 percent in 1998 to more than 25 percent, Emerson found.

On the south end of John Young is First Baptist Church of Orlando, a 15,500-member Southern Baptist megachurch that has gone from excluding blacks to welcoming minorities. Black members view the racial mix in the pews as evidence of not only how far their church has come from the days of segregation, but also the progress made nationwide since King's era.

Kevin Howard, who joined the church eight years ago with his family after moving from Maryland, said he was struck by the diversity of the congregation: white families, African-American families, Asian families, Hispanic families.

"This is something in my heart I always desired: to be able to worship with a multitude of cultures," said Howard, a retired police officer who grew up in a predominantly black Baptist church. "This church would impress Dr. King."

'Most segregated hour'



King often repeated his famous observation on race and religion, using it to highlight the institutional racism that existed in American churches and the role of many clergy in perpetuating segregation.

But King wasn't just talking to the Southern preachers who stood in the way of desegregation, said King biographer David Garrow. He was also lamenting that religion in America had failed to transcend the nation's racial divisions. Instead of bringing white and black together, it was helping to keep them apart.

King was "making the argument that the white church, especially in the South, had failed to observe true Christian teaching — just as much as any white segregationist institution," Garrow said.

Institutional racism has largely disappeared from American churches, but the separation of blacks in their churches and whites in theirs, has not.

Researchers estimate that only 8 percent of American churches have a congregation in which 20 percent or more of its members do not belong to the congregation's dominant race.

"By and large, Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in America," said Gerardo Marti, a sociology professor at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C., and author of A Mosaic of Believers: Diversity and Innovation in a Multiethnic Church.