As the nation celebrates the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Cornerstone asks contributors about the role of religion in King's civil rights effort. Moreover, we ask to what extent African-American leaders today continue to advance civil rights through religion.
By: Jacqueline C. Rivers
A deep-rooted faith in the person of Jesus and a pervasive application of the theology of the Black Church were the powerhouses of the life of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. King was a son of the Black Church, raised in Ebenezer Baptist Church by his clergyman father. Since the founding of the first black denomination in the eighteenth century, a major focus of the Black Church has been the pursuit of racial and social justice for its members. This was not merely a matter of convenience arising from the oppression and suffering that were pervasive in black life. The central motif in blacks’ understanding of Christianity is the Exodus narrative. For blacks, the Civil War and the resulting emancipation of the slaves were acts of divine justice and their own personal exodus story. God is the deliverer who rescues the oppressed and scatters our enemies before us. Since, as his children, the Black Church bears the imago Dei, we too fight injustice and rescue the downtrodden.
The faith of the Black Church was central to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s understanding not only of Christianity but of his own identity. This influenced King’s response to the intellectual currents to which he was exposed at Boston University, as Cornel West points out. King accepted the Marxian critique of the stark economic inequality associated with capitalism. However, he rejected Marx’s historical materialism. This is perhaps typical of Hegelian dialectics, but it is more fundamentally rooted in the Christian commitment that reflects both God’s preferential option for the poor and an awareness of the essential spiritual underpinnings of reality. In short, both King’s early experience in the Black Church and his intellectual commitments prepared him, for the most part, for the leadership role that he would play in the Civil Rights Movement.
Despite King’s intellectual and spiritual preparation, he was still immature, according to theologian Charles Marsh, when he assumed leadership of the Montgomery boycott. It was the crucible of physical danger and intransigent political strife that would not only hone his philosophical commitments, but more importantly deepen and solidify the glib theological pronouncements of his student years to produce an inspiring and humble leader, as well as a brilliant political strategist. It took both the pressure from a downtrodden people and divine revelation; in an hour of despair during the early years of his leadership, King heard the voice of Jesus encouraging him not to abandon the fight, promising to always be with him. This revelation served as a source of strength for King through many years of opposition and hardship.
Christian faith was fundamental not only to King as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, but also to the hundreds of thousands who followed him. Their impatience with years of racial injustice pushed King to more radical demands against a system of white supremacy. Faith was central to the unknown armies that risked their bodies and lives to end racial injustice and gave power to the Civil Rights Movement. Together, black and white Christians transformed the South, forcing the passage of civil rights and voting rights laws. Even more profound, their triumph led to the end of the reign of white terror throughout the South.
The achievements of the Civil Rights Movement is but one example of the pivotal role the Black Church has played over the last two centuries. Denied other outlets for their talents by slavery and Jim Crow laws, ambitious black men turned to the Black Church for positions of power, serving as pastors throughout the South. Blocked from access to services afforded to whites by businesses such as insurance companies, blacks turned to their fellow congregants to self-insure against death expenses. As blacks moved north and the South opened some opportunities to blacks after the Civil Rights Movement, the importance of the Black Church declined. Similarly, as blacks have moved into prominent positions in mainstream organizations, leadership within the black community has come less from clergymen. Black professionals have drawn on other sources, such as political position or technical expertise, for their influence.
Despite the decline of the prominence of the Black Church, it remains the most influential institution in the black community. A 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center confirmed that Blacks are much more deeply involved with religion and take it more seriously than the general population: "nearly eight-in-ten African-Americans (79%) say religion is very important in their lives, compared with 56% among all U.S. adults.”
Just as significant is the impact that black churches and faith-based organizations have in serving the needy. Social scientist Ram A. Cnaan found that black churches in Philadelphia outperform other social service agencies in this area. These services are provided primarily to individuals in poor neighborhoods and who are not church members. Furthermore, black churches outstrip their white co-religionists in providing such services. A former director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives reported that the disproportionate impact of faith-based institutions, and of black churches in particular, appeared to hold across the nation.
The language of faith and Christian motivation no longer plays as prominent a role among influential blacks. Leadership in the black community is much more diffuse than it was during the Civil Rights Movement, though there are a few highly visible clergymen who appear in the media, particularly in times of crisis. Despite this, the Black Church continues to play a critical role in the survival of the black community, particularly among the poor. Currently, religious liberty is being challenged by competing sets of rights, and the threat exists that religious teachings may one day be considered hate speech. In this political context, the Black Church has another key role to play as a defender of the faith. Deep Christian roots among blacks and the history of overcoming struggle in the Black Church particularly fit it to respond to this new challenge.
Jacqueline C. Rivers is the executive director of the Seymour Institute on Black Church and Policy Studies.
This piece was originally authored on January 20, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.