By Promod Puri
Even now, with very few exceptions, the American civil rights movement has never been led on a political platform.
Instead, religion has been the motivating factor in the ongoing struggles and challenges, beginning with the emancipation from slavery to racism and police brutalities.
Whereas religion does not find a liking in the progressive political behaviour, but among the Black leaderships in the United States, it has been the driving force to seek justice and freedom from the White establishment.
There has been a common faith-braced thread running in the Black resistance of the earliest periods of slavery through the civil rights protests of the 1950s and 1960s. And up to now, except the current Black Lives Matter movement. But the latter too accepts, “The fight to save your life is a spiritual fight,” according to the BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullers who describes herself as “trained Marxist” (New York Times Post).
Rep. John Lewis and Rev. Cordy Tindell Vivian were the recent veterans, carrying the flag of civil rights campaigns with strengths drawing from their Christian faith instead of any political ideology. (Rep. Lewis, 80, and Rev. Vivian, 95, died July 17, 2020.)
Both were the towering personalities in the post-era of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. They received their Christian theological credentials from the American Baptist College in Nashville, Tennessee. With that faith-embedded background, Rep. Lewis and Rev. Vivian moved forward to seek equality and justice for Black Americans.
Conviction in their religious order was more vibrant and focussed on their activism than in the sermonic lecturing within church walls.
In an interview in 2004, Lewis said: “In my estimation, the civil rights movement was a religious phenomenon. When we’d go out to sit in or go out to march, I felt, and I believe, there was a force in front of us and a force behind us because sometimes you didn’t know what to do. You didn’t know what to say; you didn’t know how you were going to make it through the day or the night. But somehow and some way, you believed – you had faith – that it all was going to be all right.”
About Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis once said: “He was not concerned about the streets of heaven and the pearly gates and the streets paved with milk and honey. He was more concerned about the streets of Montgomery and the way that Black people and poor people got treated in Montgomery.”
Religious teachings have been the guiding force of the earliest Black civil rights and anti-slavery leaderships.
“Nat Turner, a leader in the revolt against slavery, for example, saw the rebellion as the work of God and drew upon biblical texts to inspire his actions. Likewise, fellow anti-slavery campaigners Sojourner Truth and Jarena Lee rejected the ‘otherworld’ theology taught to enslaved Africans by their white captors. That very theology sought to deflect attention away from their condition in ‘this world’ with promises of a better afterlife,” writes Lawrence Burnley of the University of Dayton, in a recent article in The Conversation.
A pragmatic approach has been the basis of most Black leaders’ theological understanding of religious doctrines and sermons.
With that understanding of the scriptures, the struggle for racial justice gained its solidarity in the Black Christian leaderships.
It was Rev. Al Sharpton, whose words echoed the globe when he called upon White America to “get your knee off our necks” at George Floyd’s memorial service.
Equally compelling is the message from Rev. William J. Barber II, a known Black leader, who said recently, “There is not some separation between Jesus and justice; to be Christian is to be concerned with what’s going on in the world.”
From Mohammad to Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr. to Nelson Mandela and Dr. Ambedkar all had religious commitments grounded in humanism, love, compassion, and kindness to wage their political and social campaigns against slavery, apartheid, discrimination, inequality, and untouchability based on colour, class, and caste.
The Black Civil Rights movement is part of that tradition where religion has been inspiring and motivational force to erase the racial-based stigmas in a significant part of the White American society.