We’ve Come This Far—in Spite of Faith

Leah Mickens

Religious gatherings tend not to be characterized by random outbreaks of violence, but the 1961 conference of the National Baptist Convention, the largest black Protestant denomination in the United States, was rocked by intense verbal debates that quickly escalated into physical altercations. The ensuing melee claimed the life of Rev. Arthur G. Wright, killed when he accidently fell off a stage and sustained a fatal head injury.

The incident was the culmination of more than four years of tension concerning the propriety of using civil disobedience to achieve civil rights for African Americans. The conservative faction, led by National Baptist Convention President J. H. Jackson of Olivet Baptist Church in Chicago, thought that blacks should be good Americans who respected “law and order,” whereas the radicals, whose most visible member was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., believed that African Americans should actively fight against and even disobey unjust laws. Jackson blamed Wright’s death on King, accusing the civil rights leader of inciting his followers to violence. Afraid that King was conspiring against his authority, Jackson stripped King of his position as the vice president of the Baptist Training Union and Sunday School Congress and denounced the civil rights movement in its entirety. King, supported by thirty pro–civil rights black churchmen, accused Jackson of libel and demanded a public retraction. Jackson later insisted that his remarks had been taken out of context, but the episode compelled King and his fellow radicals to break away from the National Baptist Convention and form the Progressive National Baptist Convention.

The feud between black America’s most famous civil rights leader and the head of its most powerful church is just one example of how the black church was not only not an engine of social change during the civil rights movement but how it often opposed those who wanted to take a more confrontational position against segregation.

Opposition to the Civil Rights Movement from within the Black Community

To understand why Jackson and his ilk were so antagonistic toward the civil rights movement, it is necessary to examine the political divisions within the twentieth-century African-American community. Many contemporary Americans incorrectly label all expressions of mid–twentieth-century black activism as being part of the civil rights movement, lumping separatist groups such as the Nation of Islam with integrationists such as King and accommodationists such as Jackson. In reality, these three schools of thought—separatism, integrationism, and accommodationism—entailed very different ways of addressing not just America’s racial problems but the question of how blacks ought to relate to white America. Separatists concluded that blacks should build autonomous, self-sufficient communities rather than seek acceptance from whites, whom they believed would never be willing to regard African Americans as equals. Many separatists, such as Marcus Garvey, also espoused Pan-Africanism, believing that African Americans should unite with blacks in the Caribbean, Latin America, and Africa to build a modern, unified African continent. Integrationists thought that blacks were entitled to the same rights and opportunities as whites, and the only way that African Americans would obtain these rights was to confront their oppressors through protests, court cases, and boycotts. Separatism was doomed to failure, integrationists argued, because blacks were forced to operate within a system where they would never have equal access to the kind of resources that would make an autarkic black community possible, whether in the United States or in Africa. Accommodationists believed that blacks should focus on education, entrepreneurship, and the acquisition of bourgeois values rather than advocate for social or political equality, assuming that whites would voluntarily grant them political equality when they saw that African Americans were capable of being responsible citizens. The most famous accommodationist was Booker T. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee University, who brokered the “Atlanta compromise,” in which Southern blacks agreed to acquiesce to the Jim Crow regime in exchange for basic training in menial trades and economic opportunities.

The differences between separatists, integrationists, and accommodationists caused bitter feuds among black activists, despite the fact that all three groups had the same ostensible goal of improving the condition of the African-American community. For example, W. E. B. DuBois, one of the cofounders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and a fierce defender of the integrationist position, was engaged in vituperative ideological disagreements with Washington and Garvey in the early twentieth century over what he perceived to be their passivity in the face of white supremacy. Garvey and Washington in turn launched ad hominem attacks against DuBois (and each other) in the black press in an effort to discredit the political positions that they found personally offensive. Black leaders continued to fight over tactics during the civil rights era: separatists attacked integrationists for being “Uncle Toms,” integrationists denounced separatists as impractical utopians, and accommodationists considered integrationists and separatists to be dangerous subversives.

Given the anticommunist hysteria that characterized American political discourse during the 1950s and 1960s, the accommodationist view appealed to older black leaders, particularly ministers who were suspicious of “godless communism.” The consensus among Southern whites was that outbreaks of “Negro militancy” were indicative of communist infiltration, and they viewed civil rights protesters as fifth columns for the Soviet Union. Anxious not to have their community’s concerns dismissed as communist agitation, conservative leaders such as Jackson encouraged blacks to be patriotic and respectful of the law despite their second-class status. To conservative black churchmen, the brash King and his associates, with their insistence on antagonizing the status quo through civil disobedience, threatened not only the precious gains that African Americans had made since the end of slavery but also the possibility of achieving parity with whites in the future. They were further incensed by King’s desire to redefine church work so that political activism would be considered an explicit part of the black church’s mission. The conservative black church establishment could not endorse the civil rights movement because it offered a view of religion and politics that was diametrically opposed to its own.

The Limitations of the Rural Southern Black Church

If the civil rights movement was a hard sell among educated accommodationist leaders such as Jackson, the idea of taking on the status quo was unthinkable in the politically impotent black churches that dotted the rural South. When many Americans think of the black Southern church during the Jim Crow era, they conjure up images of large urban congregations of educated, middle-class members committed to social uplift and political organizing, such as Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta or the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. However, these churches were (and still are) the exceptions to the rule; the average black church in the Jim Crow South was a small, rural edifice that was politically and culturally isolated. The 1926 Federal Census of Religious Bodies indicates that the combined yearly expenditures of the 29,603 rural black churches that responded to the survey totaled only $16,621,723, meaning that the average congregation had seventy to one hundred members and operat
ed on an annual budget of $561, with the average parishioner donating $6.14 per year. When Harry V. Richardson did a follow-up report on the state of the Southern black church twenty-one years later, his findings indicated that black Christians were as financially marginalized in 1947 as they had been in 1926.

Rural ministers often held positions in several churches out of economic necessity, depriving individual congregations of consistent pastoral leadership. As late as 1969, Benjamin E. Mays and Joseph W. Nicholson noted that 72 percent of the rural black churches they surveyed could only hold services once or twice a month because the pastor had to serve at a neighboring church. Infrequent meetings hampered the ability for rural congregations to develop stable internal organizational structures and ambitious outreach programs. Even if rural black churches had more resources, it is doubtful that they could have challenged the white power structure, because such institutions encouraged parishioners to find solace in the next life rather than to improve their material or political conditions. New theological trends such as the social gospel, personalism, and satyagraha that influenced the outlook of educated black churchmen such as Howard Thurman, Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, and Mays were completely absent from the minds of rural black ministers, many of whom were barely literate. Powerful white landholders “advised” black ministers to teach their flocks the virtues of accepting their inferior place in society, conferring token bits of material aid to black churches that complied and threatening political and economic violence against those that resisted. Whatever benefits black rural congregations conferred upon their parishioners, be they psychological or social, it should be obvious that political empowerment was not one of them.

The Role of Secular Organizations in the Civil Rights Movement

Giving the church an oversized role in civil rights history erases the role that atheists and agnostics have played in advancing the rights of African Americans. A quick survey of black history indicates that atheism, agnosticism, and other forms of nonbelief have always been an important current in the African-American intellectual tradition. The religious beliefs of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass shifted from traditional Protestantism to deism over the course of his lifetime after he became disillusioned with the complacency of American Christians toward human-rights abuses. The aforementioned DuBois was an agnostic sociologist who devoted his life to fighting against lynching, Jim Crow laws, and the systematic disenfranchisement of black voters in the South. A. Phillip Randolph, the founder and leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was one of the signers of Humanist Manifesto II, as was James Farmer, the organizer of the Freedom Rides and founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Bayard Rustin, one of the architects of the March on Washington who introduced Dr. King to Gandhian nonviolence, was a self-described freethinker from a Quaker background. Many famous black artists, such as Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Lorraine Hansberry, and Langston Hughes, followed nontheist philosophies and wrote accounts in which they or their literary doppelgangers questioned the role of religion in the black community. Black secular humanists were clearly not in short supply during the civil rights movement; rather, black religionists have made a conscious choice to ignore or downplay the true beliefs of many of its greatest figures.

The essentially secular nature of the civil rights movement becomes apparent when one examines the leadership of the major African-American organizations. Of the “Big Four” civil rights organizations of the 1960s—CORE, the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)—only one, the SCLC, had a religious orientation. Similarly, King was the only member of the “Big Six” (the civil rights leaders responsible for organizing the 1963 March on Washington) who was a minister, the others being Whitney Young of the Urban League, John Lewis of the SNCC, Randolph, Farmer, and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP. While some socially conscious ministers played an important role in mobilizing and educating the masses, they were just one group out of many that participated in the civil rights movement. Lawyers from the NAACP used the courts to dismantle de jure segregation in landmark cases such as Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), Brown v. Board of Education (1954), and Boyton v. Virginia (1960). Thousands of K–12 students integrated public schools throughout the South, stoically enduring the wrath of their white academic communities. College students, from both historically black colleges and universities and majority-white institutions, staged sit-ins to forcibly desegregate public facilities and provided the manpower for the Freedom Rides and the Mississippi Freedom Summer. While many of these individuals were probably affiliated with a religious organization in their private lives, they were participating in civil rights activities as politically engaged Americans, not as Christians per se.

What’s the Point?

The black church’s role in the civil rights struggle is exaggerated because the most prominent leader of the period—King—was a minister, as were many of his associates. However, King and his aides should be seen as outliers among black churchmen, not as representatives. During his career as a civil rights leader, King not only had to fight against deeply entrenched white supremacy but also against fellow black ministers, including his own father, who preferred a more cautious strategy. Although a minister, King was deeply influenced by humanists and humanistic ideals; he was interested in the ideas of philosophers such as Hegel and Kant, supported family planning efforts in the black community, and advocated the separation of church and state. His own personal religious beliefs were more in line with the theologically liberal Unitarian Church than the traditionalist National Baptist Convention. In fact, King was a regular attendee at Unitarian churches when he lived in Boston. He reverted to the denomination of his youth upon returning to the South, partially because of pressure from his theologically conservative father but also because he understood the difficulties of being a politically minded black man in a predominantly white organization.

Supporting civil rights for African Americans during the 1950s and 1960s was a risky undertaking that could lead to accusations of being a communist; violence against one’s business, family, or person; and harassment by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Many Americans who were sympathetic to the aims of the civil rights movement chose to remain uninvolved, afraid of the repercussions that active support might bring. Now that the Establishment has decreed that the civil rights movement was on the right side of history, religious opportunists of all colors feel free to yoke themselves to its legacy to give legitimacy to their pet reactionary causes, from black prosperity gospel peddler Eddie Long denouncing gay marriage at King’s grave to Ted Nugent comparing gun owners to Rosa Parks.

Black ministers use the myth of the church as the engine of the civil rights movement to silence critics who want to question the role of religion in the black community. However, the fact that some ministers and some churches were involved in the civil rights movement does not mean that the black religious establishment should be above criticism. Despite the tangible gains that African Americans have made since the civil rights era, many blacks continue to suffer the effects of structural racism, a failed War on Drugs, and de facto segregation. Given that there are more churches in ma
ny black neighborhoods than libraries, schools, or grocery stores, it is worth asking whether religious institutions are helping their communities get out of poverty or contributing to the problem. If religionists insist on taking credit for all of the good that comes out of the black community, then surely they must shoulder the blame for the shortcomings.

That so many African Americans feel a need to attribute the civil rights struggle to God rather than themselves indicates a general lack of confidence in their collective ability to achieve dignity and justice in their earthly lifetimes. The civil rights movement was a profoundly humanistic moment in American history, when blacks stood up to an intolerable status quo that had been smoldering for over three hundred years. Like the Renaissance humanists, who rejected the religious integralism and obscurantism of medieval scholasticism by “returning to the sources,” civil rights activists smashed the image of the docile Southern “darkie” by creating new forms of political organization, self-expression, and fields of inquiry. The idea that people should assert their humanity through education and active political engagement is a concept that opponents of social progress still find threatening, as they always have.

Indeed, Jackson’s antagonism against King continued after the latter’s death. Upon learning that the Chicago City Council would be changing the name of South Parkway to honor King in July 1968, Jackson changed the official address of Olivet Baptist Church, infuriated at the thought that his bête noire’s name might appear on his church’s letterhead or that his parishioners might see the name of the deceased civil rights leader as they entered the church.

Further Reading

Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.

Jackson, Thomas F. From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

Mays, Benjamin E., and Joseph W. Nicholson. The Negro’s Church. New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1969.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. “Jackson, Joseph Harrison (1900–1990).” Available at http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_jackson_joseph_harrison_19001990/.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. “National Baptist Convention (NBC).” Available at http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_national_baptist_convention_nbc/.

McAdam, Doug. Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930–1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.


Leah Mickens has master’s degrees in library science and digital media. She conducted archival work at major repositories of Southern history, including the King Center, the Georgian State University Special Collections, and the Emory University Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.

Leah Mickens

Leah Mickens is an independent scholarly researcher who is currently a PhD student at Boston University in the Graduate Division of Religion. She has previously conducted archival work at major repositories of southern U.S. history. Mickens is a frequent contributer to Free Inquiry.


Debunking the Myth of Civil Rights as a Church Movement

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.