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Black theology and the rise of the Civil Rights Movement


Marching ’round Selma like Jericho,
Jericho, Jericho
Marching ’round Selma like Jericho
For segregation wall must fall
Look at people answering
To the Freedom Fighters call
Black, Brown and White American say
Segregation must fall

A major irony of the Black Diaspora experience in the Western Hemisphere is that Christianity played a part in bolstering the spirit of the new arrivals in a hostile land. A religion for the most part was forced upon African Blacks, along with the arduous task of building a new nation. It proved to be a salve for the emotional and physical wounds they sustained.

This religion would provide an outlet for slave frustrations and, especially through the medium of Gospel music, a method for covertly articulating aspirations that the slave master might take a dim view of. The above lyrics were adapted in the 1960s to the traditional spiritual, “Swing low, Sweet Chariot.” This hymn was initially composed to include a coded reference to the flight from slavery but amended to reflect this new quest for deliverance.

The Spiritual idiom borrowed heavily from such African musical traditions as “call and response,” and found its way into the only pastime allowed the slaves: Labor. “Work Songs” proved to be useful in coordinating the physical exertion needed to accomplish strenuous tasks, and over the years were incorporated into another dubious tradition where African Americans were indoctrinated into prison “chain gang” songs that became a staple of the South.

Like its musical counterpart, Black preaching was nurtured by the roots of tribal belief systems and especially African oral traditions. In Alex Haley’s landmark novel, “Roots” and its television adaptation, the saga hinges upon the memories of a griot, or West African oral historian, who could recite a community’s whole history at a moment’s notice with the group’s participation. These communal events included the “call and response,” a form of equal participation between speaker and listener. This practice has been passed down in various forms through music idioms and spoken word, including the regular verbal interactions between pastor and congregation during Black church services. Contemporary African American parishioners still expect a good sermon to incorporate a healthy dose of drama, variations in pitch and rhythm and, above all an emotional connection between audience and speaker to fulfill the requirement of a satisfying religious experience. Successful ministers typically benefit from the ability to verbally ad-lib without the crutch of the printed word (a tradition that arguably continues in the form of “free-style” rapping among practitioners of contemporary Hip Hop).

Proponents of slavery, in turn, used passages in the Old Testament (“Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.” –Leviticus 25:44-45) to condone this practice, as well as the teachings of Augustine of Hippo, a bishop of what is now present-day Algeria in the fourth and fifth centuries (“…the apostle admonishes slaves to be subject to their masters, and to serve them heartily and with good-will…”), and St. Thomas Aquinas, a 13th century paragon of Roman Catholic theology, who wrote “Slavery among men is natural, for some are naturally slaves according to the Philosopher…” (From the Summa Theologica, circa 1274).

Alternately, most of the 18th century’s most ardent abolitionists belonged to evangelical groups that deemed slavery unchristian, most prominently the controversial radical John Brown, whose slave insurrection and unsuccessful raid upon Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in 1859, and was instrumental in the start of the Civil War. This far-reaching interpretation of religious doctrine is not dissimilar to contemporary religious justifications for Jihad.

After slavery, the Christian church continued as the cornerstone of Black society. It differed significantly from its White counterpart, in that the European tradition stressed a strict separation of the sacred and the secular, while slaves and their descendants, welcomed the influence of the church beyond the confines of the chapel. Preachers were a motivating engine in the push for the economic, educational, and all-around advancement of the community. In Black theology, the recognition of the essential duality of man was a prerequisite in bettering the status of humanity.
In a race-dominated environment like the South, the Black church was one of the few places where people of color could congregate in which Whites would not be the dominant focus. In essence, the church served as a counterpoint to the social and moral isolation African Americans experienced, and became the natural epicenter to launch the momentous transformation that was about to come.

Ministry for the real world
“[Niebuhr] is one of my favorite philosophers. I take away [from his works] the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. –(Then Sen.) Barack Obama in a 2007 interview with the New York Times’ David Brooks

Building upon the established convention that their church be a foundation from which to advance the race, Black clergymen, including Martin Luther King, Jr. were in a prime position to pursue the goals of the Civil Rights Movement. Long considered the de facto head of the community, they were essential in currying the support of Whites even before the government moved to defend protesters in the cauldron of the Deep South. Compared to the militancy of the more extreme among their colleagues, they provided an attractive alternative in keeping with the religious and moral values of the nation.

When King entered Morehouse College at age 15, it was pre-ordained that he follow the legacy of his father and grandfather into the ministry and use this academic foundation to build upon as a newly established preacher in the 1950s. He also needed to apply his ministry not just to the spiritual needs of his congregation, but to address the social oppression that impacted every facet of life for an African American living in the South. At Morehouse in Atlanta, Crozer Theological Seminary near Chester, Penn., and at Boston University, he examined the teachings of theologians and their application to the institution of segregation. Among these was the German evangelical minister Reinhold Niebuhr, arguably the most influential religious thinker of the later half of the 20th century.

Niebuhr remains a galvanizing figure today, some 40 years after his death. His “Prayer of Serenity” has been adopted by advocates of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step groups, and has been cited as an influence by such personages as Jimmy Carter, Hillary Clinton, as well as current President Obama (see “Martin Luther King and Reinhold Niebuhr. A possible meeting of minds” by Gianni Dessì from the April 2009 edition of 30 Days, the Italian Catholic ecclesiastical and political magazine). King was drawn to Niebuhr’s pragmatism about man’s nature and the state of the world. Ironically, Niebuhr was extremely conservative on certain issues, and never actively supported integration and the Civil Rights Movement, especially after witnessing the violence that swept northern American cities in the late 1960s.

King adopted certain components of Niebuhr’s philosophy while rejecting others. But while Niebuhr’s view is dominated by a pessimistic view of human character, King held out hope for the ultimate triumph of what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”
Essentially King embraced Niebuhr’s admonition of man’s potential for evil, which King incorporated into what he called “realistic pacifism.”

Alternate influences
“It is ironic, yet inescapably true that the greatest Christian of the modern world was a man who never embraced Christianity.” –Martin Luther King, Jr. on Mahatma Gandhi

Given his family’s prominence and his choice of vocation, King’s appropriation of the mantel of leadership was a logical progression, after he was ordained and accepted his call to pastor a church. Aside from his father and grandfather, he had various colleagues with robust speaking styles of which to emulate (see “The Activism of Interpretation: Black Pastors and Public Life,” by Kirk Byron Jones; originally published in the September 13-20, 1989 volume of the Christian Century; and “Preaching with Sacred Fire: An Anthology of African American Sermons, 1750 to the Present,” by Martha Simmons and Frank A. Thomas (Editors); W.W. Norton and Company, 2010). Among them were Benjamin Mays who was at the helm of King’s alma mater, Morehouse College, and William Borders, whose sermons King regularly went out of his way to hear.
Especially influential was the Reverend C. L. Franklin, probably best known today as the father of R&B legend Aretha Franklin. One of the first ministers to commit his sermons to record and generate huge sales, Franklin’s oratory earned him the appellation as the “Million Dollar Voice,” and he was imitated by of loads of preachers. Aside from his fine singing and speaking voice, Franklin was a pioneering civil rights activist, and proved instrumental in improving conditions for auto workers in his native Detroit.

Having grown up in the church, King was steeped in the rich oral traditions of Black preaching, for which his vibrant God-given baritone was a natural vessel. He augmented preaching with his academic background and willingness to incorporate components not normally associated with the repertoire of a southern Baptist preacher. The sway of German philosophers Friedrich Hegel and Immanuel Kant have touched the consciousness of scores of scholars beside King, but the precepts of Gandhi, the organizer of Indian independence, were a curious concept in 1950s America. Nether Gandhi’s notion of the practice of Satyagraha nor his Hindu beliefs were part of the vocabulary of most Americans, Black or White.

A Sanskrit-derived word alternately defined as soul force or truth force, Satyagraha is a practice Gandhi adapted from the doctrine of civil disobedience found in the writings of American author Henry David Thoreau, another inspiration for King. In any event, after careful deliberation, he determined that it would be the mainstay of his siege on the bastion of legalized segregation.
The events of the mid-century included societal and political upheavals for all creeds and cultures. It also marked the evolution of a theology that specifically addressed the needs, societal and spiritual, of the Black community. Considered an offshoot of Social Christianity, it has been labeled in some circles as Black Liberation Theology (and in turn is part of the larger concept of liberation theology which seeks deliverance from economic, political, or social injustice). It has among its advocates the Union Seminary Professor James Hal Cone. Central to its tenets is the idea that the church should contend with the plight and struggle of the oppressed and disenfranchised of society. Cone, like King before him, looks outside Christianity for inspiration, including sources such as Malcolm X, whose famous proclamation that Christianity was “a White man’s religion” helped spur on the debate.

These views have in turn spawned criticism reminiscent of those directed at King during his lifetime. As his stature rose and the movement gained thrust, accusations of communist ties hounded him in step with the accolades for his leadership and devotion to service. Liberation Theology has likewise been criticized for appropriating elements of Marxism (specifically class struggle) in its implementation, especially throughout Latin America.

Spiritual passage
The odyssey of Black Liberation Theology in America has been one of transition in tandem with the evolution of society. As slaves toiled the land, their masters debated the merits of spreading the gospel among their minions, on one hand encouraging a ministry that would placate a contented work force for economic consistency. On the other hand granting the status of Christianity to those in servitude meant acknowledging their humanity, and in turn, their right to liberty.

Post Emancipation saw the church expand its role as a stabilizing force in the community and as an inspiring agent for the betterment of the race. The dawn of the 20th century and America’s increased prominence on the world stage brought African American participation in two world wars, exposure to ideas outside the confines of segregation, and the desire to transcend the limits imposed upon them in their native land.

Utilizing the house of worship as the epicenter for African American equality meant the elevation of the cleric as a shepherd to guide his flock toward the sweet grass of social justice. While scores of elite preachers answered the call to contribute to the great undertaking, King’s unique combination of charisma, intellectualism, and vision allowed him to transcend the physical confines of the local pulpit to secure outside assistance for this grand endeavor.