Civil Rights Movement And Christianity
It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.i This quote from Audre Lorde was from a series of poems written in 1994 entitled Our Dead Behind Us. This quote could be used to describe most African Americans’ mindset a few decades ago when the Civil Rights movement was the most prominent battle going on in the United States.
Even today, about 50 years later, those words ring true about political beliefs between citizens and politicians over ideas such as health care, international relations, or a wall. The Civil Rights movement is often praised as a political event, but what was the religious and spiritual meaning to it as well? This paper will be looking at the Civil Rights movement that happened in the United States during the 50s and 60s, while also looking at the role of Christianity within that movement, for both the African American protesters looking for freedom, and the white oppressors looking to stop them. Also, it will look at other Civil Rights activists like Malcolm X, whose conversion to Sunni Islam also provided a different out look to Civil Rights activists.
The Civil Rights movement began in earnest in the 1950s, although there were actions that occurred prior to that time that focused on civil rights. As early as the late 1890s and early 1900s, African Americans were debating the best way to achieve their rights.ii Should they rise and try to take their rights by force, or should they use a nonviolent tactic and use their words and more polite actions to at least try and get attention to their issue? William James, a great philosopher, once wrote that those who oppose war must create a substitute for war’s disciplinary function and a moral equivalent of war.iii While James was giving his speech and promoting this in New York, another nonviolent believer was putting this into action in another part of the world.
As we have read throughout this course, Mohandas Gandhi was one of the best advocates for nonviolence. First, he opposed a law that required Indians who were in South Africa to register with the government. Beatings and jail time for the Indians commenced, but a peaceful public outcry ensued because of the violence shown by government officials towards nonviolent Indian protesters. This led to a compromise in South Africa and prompted an idea for Gandhi. He returned to his homeland of India with this new strategy of nonviolence and opposed the British colonization of India for the next forty years. Eventually, the Indian people won independence without fighting a bloody war against the British.iv Gandhi’s words and actions laid the foundation for nonviolent action, and his work would be utilized and celebrated in the United States during the Civil Rights movement by many other activists, including the most famous one in the United States.
Martin Luther King Jr. was born in 1929 to a middle-class African-American family in Atlanta, GA. His childhood could only be described as filled with endless amounts of love, and he credited the hope he always spoke about in his public life and speeches to the secure and loving environment he was raised with.v His life, however, was so much like those who lived around him. Segregation wasn’t the problem for King when he was growing up? Rather, it was the oppressive and barbaric acts that grew out of it. Police brutality, legalized prejudice, the terrorism of Ku Klux Klan, and profound economic inequalities were just some of the hurdles he had to overcome early in his life. vi A moment of such horrific treatment came when at the young age of fourteen, King was forced to get up from his bus seat by a white man. Not only was he removed from his seat, but then had to stand for the 90-mile bus ride. King said that “injustice will never leave my memory. It was the angriest I have ever been in my life.vii
Martin Luther King was one of the most prominent and outspoken people from the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955/56 until his murder in 1968. The quote used at the beginning of this was something that King always preached, talking about your differences and the uniqueness they bring to each individual citizen. These differences are not what divides people, but rather people’s inability to accept them as normal and rather look at differences in skin color as a curse rather than a blessing. But King also had a background that was a unique in the fact that he was a preacher and used the churches as gathering places for nonviolent protestors to meet in peace to discuss methods of action. Faith also helped King to preserve in this work through death and bomb threats to not only himself, but to his wife and daughter as well.
So how much does Christianity play a role in instances like this? Probably more than most people realize. Max Stackhouse argues that while “the deep roots of human rights ideals are rooted nowhere else than in the biblical tradition,” these values “remained a minority tradition (within the Church) for centuries.viii What Stackhouse is saying is the idea of all humans having equal opportunity and fair share can be found in biblical faiths and traditions framework. They may not appear to those who look on from the outside, but those within see these ideals through and through. Stackhouse’s ideas were used to explain the Church’s past in my first source.
Charles Villa-Vicencio used this quote in his book entitled Christianity and Human Rights. He says that for hundreds of years Christians promoted religious intolerance against any other religion. However, many of these values and practices are today rejected as contrary to a human rights culture and moral decency.ix Villa Vicencio argues in this text that the
relationship between Christianity and the human rights tradition can only enrich society to
the extent that the relationship is sustained by mutual critique and correction.x Martin Luther King believed the same thing Vicencio is saying here. Human rights for all people, no matter skin tone, religion, or political party, can only happen through dialogue, debate, and communication and not by segregation and brutality against those who seem different, but really aren’t.
Though Martin Luther King is often given the credit for developing a nonviolent strategy, it can be traced back to the New Testament. Matthew recounts Jesus teaching this very philosophy: You have heard that it was said, ?Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also (Matthew 5:38-39).xi Scripture was the basis to not only King’s speeches, but to the Civil Rights movement as a whole. Genesis was often quoted by main protestors who said God created all of creation in his image and likeness, meaning black or white, Christian or Protestant, all were created with God’s likeness in mind.
These voices were often shut down, but in the 1960s, a new idea was presented. Author Frank Lambert writes of a time where not only were African Americans seen as political and economic outsiders, but religious ones as well. They had enough of being treated not only as second-class citizens, but as second-class human beings. When they were tired and fed up with their cries being heard, they decided to do something about it. These protesters charged the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) establishment with perpetuating a morally bankrupt society that promoted greed, war, racism, and sexism. The new voices offered alternative interpretations of the gospel that were more inclusive and emphasized justice for all.xii What resulted was a grassroots movement that found its greatest power, not in legislative assemblies and courtrooms, but in a determined, persistent, and effective “politics out-of-doors,” in which an oppressed people broke unjust laws in the name of a higher law.xiii As we have seen today, the marches and protests in the streets of our country tend to have a much bigger impact then those issues brought to court, not because they get things done, but bring issues out to the public eye that may have seemed hidden before.
When Martin Luther King was confined in the Birmingham Jail in 1963, he wrote that “and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.”xiv Again, we see King’s connection to his faith getting him through the difficult event of being in jail. I often believe that he was portrayed as a present-day Moses, sent to help liberate African-Americans in the United States from something they considered close to slavery. This quote backs that up and talks about the Apostle Paul and his conversion from Christian persecutor to writing letters to the early communities.
Of course, black churches weren’t always this locked in to public issues. Paul Harvey and Phillip Goff edited a chapter in the book The Columbia Documentary History of Religion in America Since 1945. That chapter was entitled Religion and the Civil Rights Movement, and it presents documents that explore the close relationship of religion and the black freedom struggle of the 1950s and 1960s. Harvey and Goff write that it took deep religious faith to sustain the thousands of black Southerners who stood up in the face of white Southern power, endured petty daily harassment as well as more explosive acts of terrorism (beatings, bombings, kidnappings, lynching’s, and the like), and sought to redeem the soul of America, as the manifesto of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) proclaimed its mission to be.xv So, because of their faith and the belief in themselves, African-Americans feel what they are doing is important to help redeem America from the racist sins it was committing.
Now, this paper has sort of a timeline as far as civil rights activists promoting nonviolence to fight for their civil rights. It started with Gandhi and his movement to help India be liberated from the rule of Britain. His work was then studied and applied by Martin Luther King in the United States to help African-Americans fight for equality. Those two and their work affected not only the people they were fighting for, but others who were fighting for a just cause. One such person came to the forefront in 1962 to fight not directly for one race, but many who felt shortchanged with their wages. His name was Cesar Chavez, and the cause was farmworkers who’s working conditions were worse from the grape growers who employed them.
Ch??vez organized a series of farmworker strikes in the produce fields in the 1960s, where migrant laborers of Mexican descent toiled for low pay in terrible conditions. Migrant workers had briefly captured the attention of the nation in the 1930s when the Okies, whites from the American South and Southwest, migrated to California in search of work and often ended up picking produce in the fields.xvi Chavez ran into infighting during his movement, so he began a fast for weeks to show his followers that violence may be a quick idea, but it will never allow you to reach your goal. This was true about Ceasar and his fast because it brought the sides together to sign a labor law and begin discussion for better conditions. He gave up his health to help reach a goal, but it was only him who suffered and no one else. The Movement attracted so much attention, that after wrongful arrests of peaceful protestors, senator Robert Kennedy stepped in to support the farmworkers and their movement, which showed that this was much more than a race issue, but a wellness and equality for workers issue.
So how did religion and Christianity play into Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers movement? Chicano workers often displayed an image of our Lady of Guadalupe. Our Lady of Guadalupe holds a special place in the religious life of Mexico and is one of the most popular religious devotions. Her image has played an important role as a national symbol of Mexico.xvii Also, before marching, workers often celebrated mass to prepare them for not only the work and journey they will be a part of that day, but also the insults and attacks they may face from opponents who don’t believe in their cause. It also gave them the strength not to fight back or go against the nonviolent movement that had brought them so far.
During Martin Luther King’s fight for civil rights, there was another activist fighting for the cause named Malcom X. His was the world of Denmark Vesey, Harriet Tubman, and Henry McNeil Turner”a realm where the spiritual answers the existential call of the political. The spiritual and the political constituted a single domain, and this was the world Malcolm X and countless others inhabited.xviii Malcolm X believed that more politicians should be more spiritual, because it would make life so much easier for them as far as laws and political debates. He had an epiphany, they claim, either on his Mecca pilgrimage or shortly after his announcement to leave the Nation of Islam (NOI). Even Malcolm himself at times made similar statements, arguing that the separation was a result of his exposure to true Islam.xix
Malcolm said later, there was a split. The split came about primarily because they put me out, and they put me out because of my uncompromising approach to problems I thought should be solved and the movement could solve. (Malcolm X 1992a, 158) So, from all I read about Malcolm X, it seemed that he was somewhat like Martin Luther King in that he used his words to help spread his message. However, unlike King, it seemed Malcolm X wasn’t very keen on dialogue and relationship with white oppressors, but rather wanting African-Americans and revolt against them to take over. That wasn’t the foundation of what the Civil Rights movement should be. It’s the fact that everyone, regardless of the color of their skin, should live in harmony and have equal billing throughout the country, not one over the other.
Now, throughout this paper, I’ve looked at the Civil Rights Movement and how religion was a driving force throughout its timeline. But, up until this point, I’ve only looked at those who were fighting for their civil rights like African-Americans or Mexican farmworkers. We haven’t really looked at the other side of the coin so to speak, which is the role religion played for white evangelicals during this time period. Perhaps one reason for this scholarly oversight is that this is not a politically progressive story. Evangelicals were opposed to the civil rights movement and did very little in practical terms to advance social justice for African Americans during the 1960s. Most evangelicals resisted the growth of the federal government and legislation that furthered black rights.xx So, Evangelicals were the one religious’ movement at the time who saw black people fighting for their rights as absurd. The problem back then was the evangelical church got too much into political battles and statements, which in all branches in Christianity is frowned upon
White conservative Protestants, in the South and North, insisted that race relations would worsen because agitation would only stoke the fears and hatreds of whites and that government action on behalf of blacks was only a form of coercion. King rejected this reasoning by noting that “morals cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated.xxi King is saying that he cannot go out and try to change people’s morals or who they are as a person. That would be a losing battle. However, what King is trying to do is put forth ideas and rights for African-Americans within the government that protect them from these people who are segregating them, firing them wrongfully, or refusing to serve them at their restaurant or business because of the color of their skin. That was the point of the Civil Rights movement for King, not a country wide faith conversion, but a political battled fueled by faith to help regulate and handcuff these oppressors.
The Civil Rights movement wasn’t just one battle for African-Americans led by MLK, but rather many movements for different reasons to help those less fortunate than others who were wrongfully being stripped of their rights. Because of activists like MLK, Cesar Chavez, Malcolm X, and Gandhi, different groups of people from farmworkers to regular citizens were looked at and treated differently, like they belonged in the country. This battle for equality hasn’t been one yet, as movements like Black Lives Matter show us today that this fight may never end. But it’s a fight we cannot give up on, and it the forefront of this fight for equal rights, religion is a crutch that these men and women can lean on in order to guide them through the long journey they undertake every day.
Evans, Curtis J. White Evangelical Protestant Responses to the Civil Rights Movement. The Harvard Theological Review, vol. 102, no. 2, 2009, pp. 245“273
Harvey, Paul, and Philip Goff, editors. Religion and the Civil Rights Movement. The Columbia Documentary History of Religion in America Since 1945, Columbia University Press, 2005, pp. 135“198.
Lambert, Frank. Civil Rights as a Religious Movement: Politics in the Streets. Religion in American Politics: A Short History, STU – Student edition ed., Princeton University Press, 2008, pp. 160“183
Abdullah, Zain. Malcolm X, Islam, and the Black Self. Malcolm X’s Michigan Worldview: An Exemplar for Contemporary Black Studies, edited by Rita Kiki Edozie and Curtis Stokes, Michigan State University Press, East Lansing, 2015, pp. 205“226.
Audre Lorde, Our Dead Behind Us: Poems “When and how did the Civil Rights movement begin?” eNotes, 9 Oct. 2011,
William James, Moral Equivalent of War, 352, 353, 356.
Gandhi, Essential Gandhi, Autobiography
Martin Luther King, Autobiography,
King, Stride toward Freedom, 90
King, Testament of Hope, 343
Max Stackhouse, Religion and Human Rights: A Theological Apologetic
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