Civil Rights Movement’s Church Origins

A really interesting and thought-provoking piece at the Black, White and Gray blog: Remembering Prophetic Faith in American Politics — a look at how secular interests ignore the Christian impact on social movements.

Having taught the sociology of race, class, and gender at a faith-based university, I am continually confronted with the reality that education and awareness about racial inequality is remarkably weak at the secondary school level. I do not blame teachers who are already straddled with a million other problem areas confronting students such as basic writing, discipline, and sustained focus. What saddens me instead is that while students might “sort of” remember who Martin Luther King Jr. was, he is not remembered as “the Reverend” Martin Luther King, a pastor turned social movement leader. [...] Due to an absence of education about contemporary religiously-motivated social movements in public schooling and private Christian schooling, the average student will not identify the Civil Rights Movement with Christianity. Thus most students will interpret institutionalized programs that were borne out of the struggle to address systemic racial inequity as a secular movement. For the devout Christians, I’d expect that they will more often reject such programs on the grounds of preventing secular encroachment in the private domain where religious expression is protected under law. Those who participate in the Black Church however will stand in support of these programs knowing full well that its roots lie in the very application of Christian theology.

The piece closes with an interesting question:

What do you remember learning about the Civil Rights Movement and in what context did you learn it?

I was very young — I was ten when Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King (and later Robert Kennedy) was murdered — and didn’t understand everything I was seeing in those flickering images, but I remember Bobby Kennedy finishing a speech and then inviting people, “let’s sing the song” and watching people solemnly sing “we shall overcome, we shall overcome…someday…” and, before that, I can remember my parents indignation as they watched news reports of people being sprayed with water. I can’t say I had a grasp of what was really happening, though. In one of my old scrapbooks there is a picture of my father and an African American man (back then the word “negro” was in use — a word I’d always though of as elegant and exotic) and they are both wearing suits — both looking very handsome and serious; they are looking at something out of camera range, and holding glasses of what looks to be whiskey, straight up.

And I remember my parents expressing grief and fury when King was killed; I recall watching Coretta Scott King lead the funeral cortege, wearing a black veil over her face, as Jackie Kennedy had in 1963. I have a very vague recollection of Robert Kennedy speaking of Dr. King, but I couldn’t tell you what he said. The message I received, though, was “injustice. This is injustice.”

And of course, a few months later, we watched Ethel Kennedy, also in black veil, at Robert Kennedy’s funeral.

I remember parts of JFK’s funeral, more of Rev. King’s funeral, but it is RFK’s funeral that is clearest in my mind. I was taking piano lessons at the convent near our school and I remember the sisters barging in and out of the lesson, discussing his grave condition with wringing hands. And I recall his casket being taken from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.

Mostly, what I remember is wondering if it was just “Catholics and negroes” who got murdered when they got into politics, so I was glad my family had no aspirations, that I could perceive, beyond going to work and watching baseball on the weekends.

What about you — what do you remember? What did you learn, and how did you learn it?

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Ed Peters

    We must be nearly the same age. Other than the points you made, I remember the MLK marchers wearing coats and ties, and thinking to myself, “Gee, they look like my mom and dad. Can they be as wrong as those shabby hoodlums on the sidewalks who are yelling insults at them claim?”

    [Yes, everyone dressed well, in those days, even to go protest. They dressed with dignity and matched their dress with their comportment. - admin]

  • Anne B.

    I was born in 1952, and I first noticed the civil-rights protests around 1962 or 1963. They were frequently on the nightly TV news (we were in New York and watched Huntley-Brinkley) and the marchers, and Dr. King, were always spoken of in reverential tones – we were to think of them as the good guys, no question.

  • friscoeddie

    I remember 1962 and picketing in front of a housing developer who would not allow an African American young lawyer inside a model home. We picketed under the banner of CFM and Catholic Interracial Council. The lawyer . Willie Brown eventually became the two time mayor of San Francisco and speaker of the Ca. Assembly. Picketing works and is good.

  • Mary M

    Regarding MLK, I notice that when politicians speak about him today he is referred to as “Dr. King” not “Rev. King” or by no title at all, simply Martin Luther King.
    Even when he’s being talked about by REVEREND Jesse Jackson or REVEREND Al Sharpton.
    A local ABC affiliate in Washington DC has a story that says “The Rev. Al Sharpton and other labor, education and civil rights leaders are holding a rally and march this weekend to the newly opened Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.”
    Look who’s a “Reverend” and who isn’t.

  • TXRed

    I learned about it in grade school (a bit younger than pervious posters) and because my family is from the South. My parents told me that people had been treated unfairly because of how they looked and that things got changed and were improving, and then explained how the family (both sides) acted. On one side a relative promoted blacks as far as the law would allow and helped one gentleman get legal assistance from the best firm in the (pretty large even then) city for an adoption. One the other side there was quiet assistance with college for the children of employees and later, after a major financial reversal, quiet assistance with medical and other needs as funds permitted. My family didn’t march with the protesters, but they didn’t man the barricades either. I was told that “that’s what you do – you help people who are being treated unfairly.”

  • Greta

    Gee, being the old lady of this group, my earliest memories were of my dad being very mad about FDR refusal to support anti lynching laws once he was in office. He had promised to support them privately to many people, but in office, he refused and these laws crumbled. Without his support, his democratic party in the south would not bend and threatened to not support his other legislation. It was when my dad left the democratic party forever. He had witnessed a black being lynched and tried to stop it and was badly beaten growing up in Georgia. Some time after this, the family moved to ohio and that is why the FDR situation was a final straw for him.

    I clearly remember parts of town that had signs “n….. don’t let the sun set on you around here.” If our parents heard that word from our mouth, it would have been worse than cursing. I remember no blacks allowed in baseball. A local amusement park did not allow blacks until the late 50′s and in the swimming pool several years later. As kids, we were not allowed to go to baseball games, that amusement park, or anywhere else that denied blacks their freedom. Dad even got into a battle with a local Bishop over his support of Democrats who favored segregation. I thought we would be banned from our faith and it was our mom who stopped him short and a new Bishop who fought along with those who would not tolerate any form of racist behavior.

    I have to kind of smile about those who claim injustice today. Yes, I know there are some who are racist, but many of them are African American in leadership positions who now use race not for what MLK called for, but for special rights filled with excuses and no call for personal responsibility. I really makes me made to hear African Americans who are conservative and do not believe the “war on poverty” has been good for poor families and especially African American families. Those of offer African Americans a real concept of how to succeed in America that does not include race baiting and victimization are attacked while the situation for most African Americans continues to decline. MLK wanted a place where people were judged by the content of their character and not skin color. Today, many on the left want the color of skin to be a determining factor in gaining special rights not provided to other races. The constant drumbeat that white Republicans hate African Americans and will do anything they can to hurt them is not true now and never has been. The very history of our country has been lied about and stolen to foster this distortion and I know my dad must roll in his grave every time he hears it. When I hear it, I think of his anger at FDR even today.

  • Suzanne

    I was a young teen riding bikes with my younger brother at a local high school when a carload of teens drove by in the back of a pick-up shouting, “the king is dead–long live the king.”. There was only one “king” in America at that time, so I knew. I told my brother we needed to ride like hell and get home before things…exploded. We rode so hard there was no breath to talk. We just had to get home to our parents. Months later, I was babysitting at a neighbor’s house quite late. I watched Robert’s California Primary speech and the reactions in the ballroom when he was shot, reminding me all over again of watching Lee Harvey Oswald murdered “live on five.”. It seemed, at that point, that the “center could not hold.”. My dad announced hours after RFK died that there was no purpose to any of this anymore and he walked out, never to return.