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martin luther king jr. i have a dream

The civil rights movement, religion, and resistance

In the following excerpt from the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion, Paul Harvey explores how the Civil Rights Movement might not have been successful without the spiritual empowerment that arose from the culture developed over two centuries of black American Christianity. In other words, religious impulses derived from black religious traditions made the movement actually move.

In the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century, black Christian thought helped to undermine the white supremacist racial system that had governed America for centuries. The civil rights revolution in American history was, to a considerable degree, a religious revolution, one whose social and spiritual impact inspired numerous other movements around the world. Key to the work was a transformation of American religious thought and practice in ways that deftly combined the social gospel and black church traditions, infused with Gandhian notions of active resistance and “soul force,” as well as secular ideas of hardheaded political organizing and the kinds of legal maneuverings that led to the seminal court case of Brown v. Board of Education.

The civil rights movement had legislative aims; it was, to that extent, a political movement. But it was also a religious movement, sustained by the religious power unlocked within southern black churches. The historically racist grounding of whiteness as dominant and blackness as inferior was radically overturned in part through a reimagination of the same Christian thought that was part of creating it in the first place. As one female sharecropper and civil rights activist in Mississippi explained in regard to her conversion to the movement, “Something hit me like a new religion.” In similar ways, the Mexican-American farmworkers’ movement drew on the mystic Catholic spirituality of Cesar Chavez and brought to national consciousness the lives and aspirations of an oppressed agricultural proletariat that lacked the most elementary rights of American citizens.

March on Washington, Civil Rights Movement
“Civil rights march on Wash[ington], D.C.” by Warren K. Leffler. Public Domain via Library of Congress.

In the mid-20th century, visionary social activists set out to instill in a mass movement a faith in nonviolence as the most powerful form of active resistance to injustice. The ideas of nonviolent civil disobedience first had to make their way from the confines of radical and pacifist thought into African American religious culture. This was the work of the generation before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. A legacy of radical ideas stirred women and men from Pauli Murray and Ella Baker to Walter White, Charles Johnson, and Bayard Rustin. Black humanists, atheists, freethinkers, and skeptics transmitted ideas of nonviolent civil disobedience to a skeptical audience of gun-toting churchgoers and blasted the ways in which conventional southern Protestantism stultified social movements for change.

Because of the prominence of Martin Luther King Jr. and other ministers, many have interpreted the freedom struggle as a religious movement at its core. More recently, scholars have highlighted the politically radical and secular roots of the struggle in the political black left (especially the Communist Party) of the Depression. Moreover, the argument goes, the movement’s Christian morality and dependence on dramatizing the immorality of segregation through acts of nonviolent civil disobedience fell short when forced to confront deeper and more structurally built-in inequalities in American society. To those stuck in poverty, the right to eat a hamburger at a lunch counter was not particularly meaningful. Further, as the 1960s progressed more rhetorically radical leaders emerged. Often, they distrusted black Christian institutions, seeing them as too complicit with larger power structures.

Nonetheless, it remains impossible to conceive of the civil rights movement without placing black Christianity at its center, for that is what empowered the rank and file who made the movement move. And when it moved, major legal and legislative changes occurred. King’s deep vision of justice, moreover, increasingly moved toward addressing issues of structural racial inequality. As the 1960s progressed, his moral critique of economic stratification, white colonialism, and the Vietnam War drew harsh criticism from many whites. It also made him the target of a relentless surveillance apparatus at federal, state, and local levels.

Activists in the 1960s held a more chastened view about religion’s role. For example, the institutional conservatism of Martin Luther King Jr.’s own denomination, the National Baptist Convention, forced King and a splinter group of followers to form the Progressive National Baptist Convention, a denomination more avowedly tied to civil rights. At local levels, indifference, theological conservatism, economic coercion, and sometimes threats of violence repressed the majority of black churches. Student volunteers from across the country, often coming with their own forms of religious skepticism, witnessed how often churches hindered rather than motivated a southern revolution. Further, activists often encountered the view that humans could do little to move the forces of history.

Civil Rights Movement Protest
“Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C.” by Rowland Scherman for USIA. Public Domain via National Archives Catalogue.

There was nothing inherent in “religion” in the South that either justified or blocked social justice struggles. The southern freedom struggle redefined how the central images and metaphors of black southern religious history could be deployed most effectively to mobilize a mass democratic movement. It also vividly illustrated the emotionally compelling power latent in the oral and musical artistry developed over centuries of religious expression, from spirituals and the gospel to sermonic and communal storytelling traditions.

To transform the region so dramatically, southern activists wove a version of their own history of social justice struggles out of a complicated tangle of threads. To do so, they engaged in narrative acts that allowed people to see themselves as part of a long-running tradition of protest. They revivified part of the history of black southern Christianity. They did not have to invent a tradition, but they needed to make it a coherent narrative.

Nothing else could have kept the mass movement going through years of state-sponsored coercion, constant harassment, and acts of terrorism. The historically racist grounding of whiteness as dominant and blackness as inferior was radically overturned in part through a reimagination of the same Christian thought that was part of creating it in the first place. Many perceived it as a miraculous moment in time and sanctified its heroes. But that moment arose slowly and only after decades of preparation and struggle.

Featured image credit: Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he delivered his famous, “I Have a Dream,” speech during the Aug. 28, 1963, march on Washington, D.C. via the US Marines. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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