During the Civil Rights Movement, the African American Church was a pivotal and influential aspect of the movement as its’ most famous leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was a pastor from Atlanta, Georgia who preached at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. The Civil Rights Movement (primarily in the 1950’s & 1960’s) was a struggle for social justice for Black Americans to legally gain equal rights under United States law. This era of U.S. History is oftentimes regarded as one of the most influential eras of this nation’s history, and thus has become a very intriguing topic from high school/college students to historians and professors, and the general public. To fully understand what role and how much the African American Church truly meant to the Civil Rights Movement, I believe it is fundamentally important to explore the question of ‘how’ when talking about the African American church’s role within this movement.
The African American church began in American history during the age of African American slavery, and more specifically, the black church also began due to the notion that African American slaves rejected the version of Christian faith presented by their white slave owners. This is extremely important as this version of Christianity presented to African American slaves stated that slavery was permitted by God. The black church was then born in that moment of rejection of this version as well as the rejection of the ‘white man’s version’ of Christianity. I also believe it is fundamentally important to highlight another section within Douglas’ and Hopson’s literary piece of their explanation on the Black Church as a social center; it states, “it is a place where black women and men gain affirmation, status, and certain privileges-all of which are denied them in wider society…”.[i] I think this is important to note before moving forward because African Americans did experience freedom to do what and how they please within their church, which in turn, showed them exactly what they were missing from society outside of the church. This is why the African American church became such an inspirational aspect of the Civil Rights Movement.
Continuing with this question ‘how’ the African American church was so influential within the Civil Rights Movement, the word “freedom” is an absolute must. Highlighted by Leonard Gadzekpo in his article, “The Black Church, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Future”, he states, “Freedom for whites encompassed the value of American individualism…For the African as a slave, it meant release from bondage; after emancipation, it meant education, employment, and freedom of movement…”.[ii] We can also add onto his statement with modern ideas that the African Americans have moved to political, economic, and social justice to their community. Examples of these would be the gap of income of black individuals/families as compared to white individuals/families and the higher percentage rate of African American men and women arrested and jailed as compared to white Americans.
So how exactly did the African American church get to be such a huge part of the Civil Rights Movement? On December 5th, 1955, thousands of African American citizens from Montgomery, Alabama gathered at Holt Street Baptist Church for the first Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), with this day being the first day of the Montgomery bus boycott.[iii] This is also where Martin Luther King Jr. made his first speech as MIA president, and thus began his leadership role in the Civil Rights Movement. Holt Street Baptist Church would continue to serve as the meeting place throughout the boycott for the MIA as well as other mass meetings like the MIA. This article would not be a ‘true’ Civil Rights Movement article if I did not mention about MLK Jr. more than just one sentence of him being MIA President. King was a pastor for the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, which was also located in Montgomery, Alabama, and in his pastor acceptance speech he states, “I have no pretense to being a great preacher or even a profound scholar. I certainly have no pretence to infallibility—that is reserved for the height of the divine rather than the depth of the human”.[iv] I believe this sentence truly embodies just how a ‘simple’ pastor who had no intentions of accomplishing the things that he eventually went on to accomplish, can have such an impact on the Civil Rights Movement within the African American Church.
A few years later, MLK Jr. decided to resign from Dexter Avenue and join his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia to co-pastor as well as leading the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). SCLC’s leadership at this time were primarily ministers, and they firmly believed in the role of the African American church to be involved with the marches, boycotts, and other forms of nonviolent protests of the Civil Rights Movement rather than to “sit around” and wait for the court’s decision. The SCLC also collaborated with other civil rights group, which formed the “Big Five”: the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the National Urban League (NUL).[v] SCLC also played a significant role on the March on Washington, the March to Montgomery, and the Selma Voting Rights Campaign, through the organization of a multitude of churches, pastors/ministers, as well as the SCLC organization itself.
As a result of the African American churches being so involved and influential within this social justice movement, unfortunately there were many aggressive and oftentimes deadly attacks against these institutions and the people. One of these deadly bombings was the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing on September 15th, 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, where 4 girls were killed.[vi] In response to this bombing, the poet Dudley Randall, wrote a poem dedicated to the 16th street Baptist Church bombing which is hyperlinked here.[vii]
When talking about the role of African American churches in the Civil Rights Movement, there is absolutely no way that the topic of music cannot be brought up, as it was a co-factor alongside the church. The two types of music that were co-factors were gospel music sang in church, by the congregation, as well as at the marches ands rallies, as well as the popular music type where we see singers like Bob Dylan making music that highlights the struggles of African Americans during this era. Below are two videos of Mahalia Jackson, a famous gospel singer, who sang at the March of Washington (1963) singing “How I Got Over” and “We Shall Overcome” at the Chicago Freedom Movement (1964).
I also made a playlist labelled “Civil Rights Music from 1950’s-1970’s” where all of these songs were not gospel, but rather were considered to be popular music during this time. Some of the singers/bands are The Staple Singers, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, and Pete Seeger.
The Civil Rights Movement is not only one of the most pivotal eras in United States history, but a very interesting time because it is rare that a social movement is so persistent, despite the aggressiveness of the opposition, and succeeds. The African American church, primarily the SCLC partnered with churches/ministries, became the center of the Civil Rights community, in which they educated their members and citizens of their local churches, and worked collaboratively to become a socio-political titan. Gaines provides in his text, “in addition to providing bodies willing to participate in direct action, disseminate information, and finance protest activities, the Black Church also provided the ideological and theological underpinning for the movement”.[viii] While researching the Civil Rights Movement and the role that African American churches played during this time, I noticed similarities between then and now with the Black Lives Matter group and police brutality. Could there be similar results in weeks, months, or years with the police brutality/BLM events going on now, like it did with the Civil Rights era? Will there be legislation like there was before? I think these are interesting questions to ask oneself since not even 100 years have gone by, and yet we see history mimicking itself in the United States once again.
[i] Douglas, Kelly Brown, and Ronald E. Hopson. 2001. “Understanding the Black Church: The Dynamics of Change.” Journal of Religious Thought 56/57 (2/1): 95–113. http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.usca.edu:2048/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=12233630&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
[ii] Gadzekpo, Leonard. 1997. “The Black Church, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Future.” Journal of Religious Thought 53/54 (2/1): 95. http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.usca.edu:2048/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=1857238&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
[iii] Stanford University. “Holt Street Baptist Church (Montgomery, Alabama).” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, May 3, 2017. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/holt-street-baptist-church-montgomery-alabama.
[iv] Stanford University. “Dexter Avenue Baptist Church (Montgomery, Alabama).” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, April 25, 2017. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/dexter-avenue-baptist-church-montgomery-alabama
[vii] Foundation, Poetry. “Ballad of Birmingham by Dudley Randall.” Poetry Foundation, April 21, 2021. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46562/ballad-of-birmingham.
[viii] Gaines, II, Robert W. 2010. “Looking Back, Moving Forward: How the Civil Rights Era Church Can Guide the Modern Black Church in Improving Black Student Achievement.” Journal of Negro Education 79 (3): 366–79. http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.usca.edu:2048/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=57717501&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
How To Cite: Evan Jenkins. “The Role of African American Churches in the Civil Rights Movement” Digital History at USCA, 2021, https://digitalhistoryusca.com/2021/04/22/the-role-of-african-american-churches-in-the-civil-rights-movement/
Featured Image: CNN. “The Civil Rights Movement in Photos.” Accessed April 21, 2021. https://www.cnn.com/2014/04/07/us/gallery/iconic-civil-rights/index.html.
Further Readings: “Welcome to the Civil Rights Digital Library.” Accessed April 21, 2021. http://crdl.usg.edu/.
Masley, Ed. “25 Songs of Social Justice, Freedom, Civil Rights and Hope to Honor Black History Month.” The Arizona Republic. Accessed April 21, 2021. https://www.azcentral.com/story/entertainment/music/2021/01/12/best-civil-rights-protest-songs/6602985002/.
Official Georgia Tourism & Travel Website | Explore Georgia.org. “Churches Pivotal to the Civil Rights Movement to Visit Today.” Accessed April 18, 2021. https://www.exploregeorgia.org/things-to-do/list/churches-pivotal-to-the-civil-rights-movement-to-visit-today.