My earliest ideas about African American religion and political struggle come from my first public memories as a child of the South of the late 1950s and 1960s. The civil rights movement entered our home through the televised images of black churches opening their doors for political rallies and the funerals of martyrs. Those pictures were accompanied either by the spirited call-and-response of black religious music or by the mournfulness of its dirges. I saw Southern black people speaking and singing a language of prophecy and praise that I had come to know in the sacred space of a country church in Virginia. There was something both familiar and unsettling in this. The people I saw were without a doubt “church people,” but they were doing and saying things in public that I had never known black people, especially black church people, ever to dare to do.
I was born too late to be part of the movement, but my immersion from afar in its unfolding drama and denouement left in me gratitude and a drive to achieve when its legacy of affirmative action opened the doors of educational opportunity for my generation of black working-class children. The history I was later taught about that movement, and was later to teach, reinforced the religious sounds and images of my childhood memory, preserved in forms aural and visual. For those then and now, here and around the world, who had never set foot in a Southern black church, these images became theirs too. And so for many of them and for me, African American religion and political struggle seemed poignantly and inextricably intertwined.
The power in those images rested in part on the way they conveyed the surprising political potency of African American religion in the South. I say “surprising” because throughout the twentieth century there were spirited debates among varied groups of African Americans about whether religious doctrines, religious people, and religious organizations were a blessing or a curse in the struggle for black freedom and racial progress. Although churches were continually called upon to be savior institutions, historically they were most often criticized for failing in that mission.
In the first half of the twentieth century, the dominant political narratives treated African American religion with despair and disdain. The emergence in the late 1950s of a Southern civil rights movement with churches, church people, and church culture at its center was a powerful and startling departure from that story, rather than a natural progression. In many ways, the movement is best thought of not as an inevitable triumph or a moment of religious revival, but simply as a miracle. It was brief, bold, and breathtaking, difficult to replicate or sustain, and experienced firsthand by only a small remnant of true believers.
Many since have misread the successes of that period and applied them retrospectively over the entire span of African American political history, seeing the past through the haze of a post-civil rights consciousness. It was the movement itself that changed our notions and expectations about the relationship between African American religion and politics. Our failure to understand this has obscured the important history of the decades of complaints and controversies on the question of how or whether African American churches could be a progressive political force. Debates on the issue preceded and raged within the movement, and figured in its demise as well. My recent work aims to retrieve the history of these important debates for the decades preceding, during, and after the civil rights movement, marshaling evidence from a wide variety of public lives and venues.
Why is the history of these debates important? Because they are evidence of an intraracial struggle for control of the spiritual resources of black people across the country and for control of the churches and religious networks they had built. These debates capture the overlapping challenges of creating a basis for black collective political activism, building independent black institutions, and determining the place of women and men in racial leadership. The fact that religious belief, religious institutions, and religious people came to be seen as so essential to this process remains the central paradox in African American political history.
EVEN BEFORE THE FOUNDING of black religious institutions, black public protest against slavery and against racial injustices was cast, as was much of eighteenth-century discourse, in explicitly religious terms. As early as 1774, Africans in Massachusetts petitioned for release from their condition as “slaves for Life in a Christian land.” In both the North and the South, Christian hypocrisy became a repeated refrain in the fight to abolish slavery—a line of argument made more urgent by the spread of evangelical Christianity during the late eighteenth century, which undercut social hierarchy and racial difference among its followers.
Yet by the turn of the nineteenth century, the power of Southern white Christians had forced a retreat. White Methodists and Baptists dampened their opposition to slavery, acting out racial discrimination within their own denominations and sanctuaries. Free blacks in the North established their own churches, beginning with two groups in Philadelphia in the 1790s. One left a white church to found an independent black Methodist tradition, the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, while the other, the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, chose to remain within the larger Episcopal denomination. Those two decisions are an early indicator of the historical diversity among black churches, their ambivalent relationship to white American Christianity, and their political natures. Both Philadelphia churches supported the work of the Free African Society in Philadelphia, an organization dedicated to racial solidarity and the abolition of slavery.
In the South, enslaved people held a variety of religious beliefs, often sharing segregated worship experiences under the surveillance of white Baptists and Methodists. Simultaneously, many of them forged a separate and largely invisible set of beliefs and practices, some Christian, some Islam-inflected, and some derived from African belief systems. Held in common, however, was the belief that slavery was a moral wrong and that retribution would ensue, an interpretation borne out with the coming of the Civil War and emancipation. Abolitionist claims, whether advanced by blacks or their white allies, were grounded in religious arguments.
During Reconstruction, black communities established their own churches, primarily Baptist, throughout the South. Many of those who emerged as black political leaders were ministers, empowered by their literacy and by their prominent role in building the black churches which served as the first forums for collective political organizing. Despite their best efforts, racial violence and the denial of black equality worsened after the federal occupation of the South was lifted and the brief period of black participation in electoral politics ended. It was no wonder then that as the nineteenth century drew to a close, questions had already emerged about the relationship between black religion and the prospects for black political advancement. When debates about that relationship emerged at the turn of the twentieth century, most African Americans were but a few generations removed from slavery. Oral histories and memoirs show that many of them had family memories and stories reaching back to their enslaved ancestors. Many rural black Southerners had forged a chain of memory to that history which they consecrated through song and ritual, continued to rely upon for daily inspiration, and passed on to their children. Ideas about the powerful and sometimes romanticized connection between religion, history, and memory remained in place decades later as illustrated in this poem published in 1944 by the then young black poet Robert Hayden:
We have not forgotten the prayers you prayed,
Black fathers, O black mothers, kneeling in
The cabin-gloom, debased, yet in your hearts
Bearing high springtime pageantries of faith.
We have not forgotten your morning hope,
More burning than the sun of cottonfields
Upon dark, shackled limbs, nor songs your anguish
Hayden linked the power of that faithfulness and hope during slavery to the continuing struggle to realize the possibilities of American democracy:
And if we keep
Our love for this American earth, black fathers,
O black mothers, believing that its fields
Will bear for us at length a harvesting
Of sun, it is because your spirits walk
Beside us as we plough, it is because
This land has grown from your great,
Freedom had brought an end to slavery, but by the early twentieth century it had yet to yield an emancipation from gross inequalities, cruelties, and exploitation. The need for liberation continued as did the search for the material and spiritual tools with which to achieve it. Hayden’s expression of indebtedness to the religious faith and struggle of enslaved people captures that key aspect of the debate among African Americans about religion and their struggle for greater freedom.
In this period, public discussions about black religion were marked by a profound unease with the legacy of spiritual practices of enslaved people, a cultural heritage that many viewed as antiquated, primitive, tainted by the sins of slavery, and marked by pagan retentions from Africa. Some thought of black Christianity as a “slave religion” that had run its course and lost its political and spiritual potency to meet the new demands of a more modem struggle against racial oppression. Although most African Americans remained in the South, the many thousands who were steadily migrating to cities in the North and elsewhere brought with them a religious heritage that was quite distinct from that found in many established urban black communities, especially in Northern cities. Migration and rapid urbanization did little to relieve the persistent poverty that was made worse by economic depression, discrimination, segregation, and legal incapacity. The end of World War I brought a shattering of hope, a resurgence of racial violence, and virulent Jim Crow practices and not just in the South.
All of this reminds us that public expressions of anxiety about the role of black religious institutions in alleviating these conditions were never mere academic or rhetorical exercises because far too much was at stake. These debates were part of a search for ways to reshape rural and urban communities into effective political collectives. Churches were seen as central to both projects because they were the only indigenous, black-controlled organizations with the potential for mass mobilization. Some people viewed this as a good thing and some as a bad thing, but most accepted that it was a reality.