In this paper, I set out to understand, in general, the relationship between Christianity and the civil rights movement in the United States, specifically on the side of the struggle. I intend to do that by, firstly, briefly tracing back to the origins of Catholicism and Protestantism in the U.S, to understand the different paths that the churches have taken in this period. Secondly, analyze a bit of the history causes and effects of the civil rights movement in parallel with the growth of the Christian left. Thirdly, I would like to analyze the way how Christianity affected the civil rights movement in different shapes and forms (north vs south; the way how exterior factors affected the movement). Lastly, I would like to look at current social-racial events in the U.S (i.e Black Lives Matter) and understand if the church plays a significant part in today’s world, as well as understand if these movements can produce structural alterations, as opposed to just provoking short-medium length legislative changes. In order to set this in motion, let’s begin by looking at Christianity in the United States.
The United States has the largest Christian population in the world, with around 240 million Christians (Gallup, 2019) It was first brought by European colonizers to the American continent, around the 16th century. However, this Christianity took some turns in history, and various beliefs were formed inside the general religion – The First Awakening happened around mid-17th century and defines the moment in the history of the United States when a Protestant revival movement took place. The supporters of this Awakening (Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists) were to play a pivotal role in Northern American religion from then on. After the American Revolution, two important developments happened: the states were obliged to write constitutions and so the state and the church began to become intertwined, and the Anglicans formed the Protestant Episcopal Church. In 1801, Thomas Jefferson would bring up the first amendment in order to establish a ‘wall of separation between church and state” (Loc.gov, 2019) – granting freedom of belief apart from taxation.
The beginning of the 19th century brought the Second Great Awakening – A reaction against deism and rational Christianity, that pushed for more social movement and led to a further split of the Protestants, creating new denominations. This movement was also very much about bringing religion to the “unchurched” and was basilar in the history of Christianity of the black population.
The Great Awakening made Baptists and Methodists travel around the South preaching directly to slaves. The congregations (especially Baptist) gave opportunities to these slaves to preach or be appointed as leaders, becoming a place where they could be more human, and where black Christianity would start to develop amidst segregation – even inspiring moments of rebellion like Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831. This segregation would be fundamental – in plantation areas the slaves would get together in a hidden way (The Invisible Church) and began to incorporate African traditions within evangelical Christianity, giving gospel a big role in these meetings. (Keller, Ruether and Cantlon, 2006). After the emancipation, missions were sent to the South (like had happened before in history), and the institutional arrangements of black churches would solidify – in 1895 the National Baptist Convention would be founded, which is still the largest black religious organization in the U.S (F. Maffly-Kipp, 2001)
The end of the Civil War – a period that had seen millions of blacks enslaved in the United States (especially in the South) – and its’ aftermath saw the end of slavery and the attribution of citizenship and voting rights to African-Americans (only to males in the case of voting). It was the Reconstruction Era, but not only was it fiercely resisted by whites at the civil society level, but Hayes’ election for President in 1876 resulted in the withdrawal of federal troops, allowing whites in the South to take control of state legislatures and re-segregate. Turning the century represented no good news for the blacks in Southern states, as political disenfranchising went on, and the Jim Crow laws would produce a “separate but equal” legal doctrine that was certainly separate, but by no means equal.
The Reconstruction era brought an era of industrialization that followed the war, and the socio-economic cleavages that it caused were in the roots of the movement that would change the importance of the Christian left in the civil rights struggle – Social Gospel. It was, by then, founded on the principle of applying Christian ethics to social problems – (Matthew 6:10): ‘Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ (Tichi, 2009, 220–221). Social Gospel then concerned a plethora of issues, like labor reforms or regulation of business monopolies, and it was based upon a reconstruction of the idea of Christianity, in opposition to white supremacy.
If one speaks of this movement, a name must be mentioned – the one of Walter Rauschenbusch. He was, in fact, a Baptist, whose writings ‘had a major impact on the development of the religious left in the 20th century” (H. Evans, 2017). In fact, one of the bases for the non-violent type of activism that the religious left followed in the 1950/60’s were these writings. As Dr. Martin Luther King would put it in his ‘My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence’ (King, Carson, and Carson, 2005):
“It has been my conviction ever since reading Rauschenbusch that any religion which professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the social and economic conditions that scar the soul, is a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried.”
Even though the leaders of this movement came out of liberal Protestant denominations, it is not reserved to it, as there are Lutherans, Evangelicals and even individuals outside from Christianity.
The Social Gospel would come to influence issues like women’s suffrage and even President Lyndon B. Johnson’s childhood, from which he grew up concerned about social justice and racial equality. The Washington Gladden Society speaks about the movement like “the most distinctive American contribution to world Christianity”. (Washingtongladdensociety.org, n.d.)
The very famous case of Brown v Board of Education would establish a new era of the civil rights movement – one of direct action, or, in other words, mass mobilization, nonviolent resistance, among other strategies. The black churches were pivotal in uniting, mobilizing and organizing movements of this type that came to generate great breakthroughs – like the Montgomery Bus Boycott, through which figures like Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin, Jo Ann Gibson Robison, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. became immortalized – either in itself, or by motivating subsequent protest (like the Tallahassee, Florida boycott).
After two meetings in 1957, several activists like Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, and C.K Steele would come together under the umbrella of an organization led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. If at first it was called ‘Negro Leaders Conference on Nonviolent Integration’, the name was eventually changed to ‘Southern Christian Leadership Conference’ – at least showing that the religion played an important role of identification, aggregation and had a strong potential of mobilizing for societal change.
Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper born in Montgomery, Mississippi in 1917 might just be the personal example of how the religious left impacted the movement. As an author writing about her has stated (Brooks, 2014):
“Hamer largely eschewed Standard American English (SAE) in favor of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), spicing her Delta-inflected expressions with quotations of antique British English that she plucked from the King James Bible. This powerful oratorical brew inspired many sharecroppers in the Delta to defy white supremacy, risking their lives as they lined up to register to vote”
[image: ]This oratorical power was built upon an identity of oppression and segregation from formal institutions (Brooks, 2014), and the accounts of Hamer using biblical references, as well as anecdotes and singing take us back to the power of the social gospel and how it was capable of bringing these people together. Furthermore, Hamer proved that these methods could go further than just mobilizing societal protests – in 1964 she co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in order to gain a voice in formal political arenas and came to speak in the 1964 Democratic Convention – a speech that would be interrupted by an impromptu Presidential press conference in order to remove Hamer from the spotlights. However, that speech would appear over and over on television the following days, becoming a seminal piece of the struggle. Although sometimes hidden behind the shadow of “I Have a Dream”, this speech depicts exactly the power of the combination of narrating true horror crimes committed against African-Americans, and the vernacular language, constituting a great rhetorical advantage for Hamer, one to what she would often add biblical references and singing 8 (Media, n.d.) fannie lou hamer speaks at the DNC (click for audio)
“All of this is on account we want to register, to become first-class citizens, and if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives are threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings in America?”
Fannie Lou Hamer would die on March 14, 1977, and her tombstone engraved with the words “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired”. Her spirit would live on forever in the hearts and minds of those who fight for the end of racial and social discrimination.
The struggle was evidently about providing rights to African-Americans, and those came naturally to be the most prominent actors in the movement. However, there are several instances of white involvement that we should keep in mind.
Andrew S. Moore gives us, through his work “Practicing What We Preach: White Catholics and the Civil Rights Movement in Atlanta”, an idea of how the white Catholics acted (Andrew S. Moore, 2005). Like it had happened with black churches, the movement of the 1960s brought the opportunities of the church’s social engagement in civil rights issues – Paul John Hallinan, the Archbishop of Atlanta, would openly support Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and would be called by TIME Magazine (TIME.com, 1968) one of the South’s “foremost advocates of social and religious liberalism”. He was also a great defender of ecumenism – something that remains crucial in the religious-civilizational dichotomies we face today. Hallinan would also send people to participate in the Selma to Montgomery marches “so Negroes can exercise the right of every American to live where he wishes.’ (TIME.com, 1968) However, Moore makes a relevant point: The actions of white Christians in the civil rights movement were complicated, as both the struggle and the opposition to it were shaped by Christian faith. (Andrew S. Moore, 2005)
Amy L. Kohelinger tells us about the work of nuns during the 1960s. The Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican (1962-1965), or Vatican II, was about the relationship between the Catholic church and the modern world, specifically the way how religion boundaries should be crossed, as well as language barriers (vernacular instead of Latin), to face social issues.
Emboldened by it, then, these nuns took to communities in the South and Urban North United States in order to end institutionalized racism and segregation – a lot of times putting themselves in risk by committing “acts of social transgression” (Koehlinger, 2007, pp. 152). The growing Black Panther movement, as well as Black Nationalism, furthered these nuns from their missions, but significant work had been done in those years, not only in racial issues but also raising questions about the position of women in society, a debate we would have so frequently in the future.
Mahatma Gandhi fought bravely, through spoken and written words, for the Indian independence from British colonization, as well as involvement in the struggle in South Africa and other work. From early on, Gandhi established devotion to ecumenism (by translating and debating texts from the Bible and the Quran), one that would influence the ecumenical calls of the Protestants and Catholics in the United States.
Gandhi was also one of the first to apply the principle of nonviolence in a large scale, in the political arena. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr would later state: ‘Christ gave us the goals and Mahatma Gandhi the tactics’. (Tougas, 2011). Gandhi passed to the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement the ideas of fighting institutionalized oppression through religious social non-violent mobilization.
Inside the United States, influences like this also existed – Father Thomas Merton, born in France but naturalized Northern American, was one of them. In his early life, he would experience in first-hand what was happening in Harlem (like so many other black-majority neighborhoods), and in the 1960’s he would become a strong advocate for the liberation and de-segregation of the black peoples. He would often criticize the inertia of “white liberals” and show that whites had much to learn from blacks themselves (Kilcourse and Merton, 2016):
‘The sin of the white man is to be expiated, through a genuine response to the redemptive love of the Negro for him. The Negro is ready to suffer, if necessary to die if this will make the white man understand his sin, repent of it, and atone for it.’
Father Thomas Merton also understood the importance of the non-violent aspect of the struggle, even saying that it “comes very close to the heart of the Gospel ethic and is perhaps essential to it.” He would die, aged 53, in 1968, but would leave behind him an extensive work on ecumenism, religious freedom, social acceptance, love, and humanity.
The North didn’t have formal segregation imposed by legislation, as we saw in the South, but that did not mean it did not exist. In fact, looking at recent statistics we note that segregation in schools is higher among the Northeast and Midwest states. Therefore, unlike most of it in the South, segregation in the North was entrenched in discriminatory policies in banking, housing, and education, almost in an institutionalized more ‘invisible’ way. Activists like Anna Hedgeman and James Farmer would establish the Congress of Racial Equality, pushing for desegregation in the South as well as in the North, and very frequently preaching and mobilizing through churches.
It is common for one to see different media sources of today referring to the Black Lives Matter as the “new civil rights struggle movement”. In fact, the group does claim to be inspired by the historical struggle, but, even if it was similar, does the church play a part in this like it once did?
The movement’s organization is rather decentralized and isn’t formally structured – DeRay McKesson has stated the movement “encompasses all who publicly declare that black lives matter and devote their time and energy accordingly” (Freelon, Mcllwain and Clark, 2016). It is true that the organization tackles its’ issues through direct action and mainly through non-violent tactics, as well as uses what we could call “the renewed gospel”, in the sense that it uses mainstream music that is made through gospel influence (i.e Kendrick Lamar or Donald Glover). However, the church directly seems to have lost the power it once had to mobilize and rally people, with the growing religious disconnection of younger generations and the struggle for issues that somewhat clash with Christian ideology (like LGBTQ rights). Although, the social gospel continues to produce effects in the community, and is now seen broadly in mainstream outlets like films or music, re-affirming the image of empowerment of the African-American constructed first during the civil rights movement and enhanced in the ’80s.
The civil rights movement was characterized by an intense struggle and the loss of many innocent lives in return of something we might nowadays take for granted. As Thomas Merton said, the legislative de-segregation of 1964 would not be an end, but rather the start of a long road. With this paper I intended to look at the way Christianity had affected the movement, and some conclusions were made that we can learn and be inspired from, as well as take them and apply them in the modern age: The ecumenical approach has a very strong power of achieving confidence, dialogue, and peaceful coexistence; The role of the church and of the social gospel was one less of mass involvement – a lot of religious institutions refrained from acting because of fears of backlash – and more one of ideology, spread by music, words, texts, speeches, gatherings and the spirit of a very strong grouped belief and objective; The movement gathered inspiration from outside and produced influence in movements like the Anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa, proving us that this type of actions travel well further country borders and oceans. One can, and should, draw a million conclusions from the civil rights movement and will probably be inspired by it, but should always remember those words from Fanny Lou Hamer in the DNC, look around and ask himself – is this the land of the free and home of the brave? – knowing that it never will be without acting.
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