Religious Frames: U.S. Civil Rights Movement
- Dennis C. DickersonDennis C. DickersonDepartment of History, Vanderbilt University
Religion provided an intellectual fulcrum, institutional support, and leadership to the U.S. civil rights movement. Whether through the eloquent and influential articulation of nonviolence, the deployment of mandates and maxims from the sacred texts of the world’s “living religions,” or the personification of crucial leadership in Black and White clergy and laity, civil rights activism became as much a matter of mobilized faith commitments as secular pursuits for civil equality and justice. Moreover, scholarly discourse about the role of religion in the civil rights movement, especially where the factor of nonviolent is considered, suggests that the idea of a “long civil rights movement” stirred in the decades immediately preceding the 1950s and 1960s. The discovery in the 1920s and 1930s of Mohandas K. Gandhi and the relevance of his moral methodology of satyagraha and ahimsa energized conversations among African American religious intellectuals in the 1930s and 1940s about how nonviolence could be harnessed to the principles and praxis of the Black freedom struggle.
A succeeding generation of religious-based activists, both Black and White in the 1940s and 1950s, seriously reckoned with nonviolent ideology and concretized it as the principal tactical thrust of such organizations as the Congress of Racial Equality, founded in 1942, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), launched in 1957.
Without the involvement of pivotal African American churches, clergy, and laity, the interracial vanguard of religious-based organizations would have been less effective. Their energies were dispersed across a spectrum of movements and initiatives. Without the crucial lawsuit, Briggs v. Elliott, the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of 1954 would have rested on a less certain legal terrain. The crucial activism of Rosa Parks, a Martin Luther King Jr. colleague and an active local officer in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Rev. King Solomon Dupont, respectively a leading layperson and a pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Church; and Dupont’s protégé, Baptist minister C. K. Steele, helped in the success of bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama, and Tallahassee, Florida, in 1955 and 1956. The church-based leadership of James M. Lawson Jr. of the Methodist Episcopal Church’s all Black Central Jurisdiction, and King, the Baptist pastor and founder of SCLC married the Black church to nonviolent ideology across the American South through the 1960s.
Even as the integrationist civil rights movement after 1966 increasingly occupied discursive space with a nationalist Black Power ideology, religious voices affected how this new insurgency was articulated. The publication in 1969 of James H. Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power placed Jesus unambiguously on the side of the oppressed. Like Howard Thurman’s 1949 publication, Jesus and the Disinherited that showed Jesus’s experience as a poor and oppressed Jew in the Roman Empire, Cone demonstrated that if Black Power eschewed the intellectual resources of radical Black religion, it would be far less effective. Such local movements as Rev. Charles Koen and the United Front in Cairo harnessed Black Power to the traditional activism of Black churches.