By Neena Arndt
In 1865, as the dust and gunpowder of the Civil War began to settle, the nation struggled to rebuild itself. For newly free African Americans, building new lives proved especially challenging. Although the Emancipation Proclamation had liberated slaves, it had not erased the racism that institutionalized slavery in the first place. In many parts of the country, African Americans remained barred from restaurants, restrooms and other public places. Segregated schools kept black students separate from their white counterparts, and their access to higher education remained limited. Excluded from holding positions of power and from participating fully in the dominant white culture, African Americans created their own subcommunities and subcultures. Some of their most influential establishments were churches, which provided a gathering place for people united not only by faith but by their struggles to thrive in a hostile nation. Churches that serve this purpose, regardless of Christian denomination, are collectively called “the black church” because of their shared aim to help members cope with and ultimately overcome adversity.
A century after the abolition of slavery, in the 1950s and ’60s, the black church proved a vital force in the civil rights movement. It was at an Atlanta church in 1957 that Martin Luther King Jr. gathered 60 black ministers and leaders to found what became known as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. While other groups used violent tactics to work toward racial equality, the SCLC organized nonviolent protests, including sit-ins, boycotts and marches. Throughout the ’60s, King recruited church leaders to support his mission by spreading his ideas to their congregations. Some ministers hesitated to bring politics to their pulpits, but many found that King’s notions worked in tandem with their existing sermons. If they were already emphasizing that all people are equal before God, it was natural to suggest that churchgoers participate in a bus boycott or lunch counter sit-in to help end segregation.
Ministers also used biblical rhetoric to help congregants understand King’s ideals. Activist Andrew Young spoke about King’s tactics years later:
“Nobody could have argued segregation and integration and gotten anybody to do anything about that. But when Martin would talk about leaving the slavery of Egypt and wandering into the Promised Land, somehow that made sense to folks … it was their faith, it was the thing they had been nurtured on. And when they heard the language, they responded. When they saw in their faith also a liberation struggle that they could identify with, then you kind of had ’em boxed.”
Although the success of the civil rights movement cannot be attributed to a single factor, the black church certainly mobilized many thousands of black activists and protesters—without whom the movement might have ultimately failed.
Because of King’s inarguable success, political leaders since the ’60s have studied his strategies. But recruiting church leaders isn’t a sure-fire path to success for any movement: Church support is spotty for America’s current gay rights movement, as the movement’s goals are in direct opposition with the literal interpretation of the Bible espoused by many churches. Today’s leaders, like those who came before them, must seek unique ways of mobilizing their audiences, gaining widespread support and ultimately redefining American life.