The Role of the Church in the Civil Rights Movement

By Logan McCullen

Religious Aspects of the Civil Rights Movement

The civil rights movement was designed to give African Americans the freedoms white citizens enjoyed and took for granted, such as eating in certain restaurants, voting and worshipping in the church of their choosing. In pursuing these rights, African Americans suffered great persecution from white citizens. Beatings and arrests were a part of their everyday lives and many African Americans gave their lives to obtain the liberties they, as all citizens of the United States of America, deserved. The civil rights years of the 1950’s and 1960’s appear to be interwoven with religion through the leaders, philosophies and tactics used (“Civil Rights Movement” 195). During a time of violence and hatred, the church gave African Americans more than just a religious safe haven; it gave them hope for a brighter future.

The Meaning of the Church to African Americans in the Nineteen-Sixties

African American Christians saw the church as a familiar and safe place to be during the chaotic civil rights movement. Many went there daily to pray for liberation or to meet with their neighbors and friends in a comfortable environment. A common opinion was that “oppression, rejection and segregation leave a human being with no one to turn to, but God” (Phipps). The deep-rooted love of religion went back to the days of slavery as African Americans’ ancestors looked to God for freedom just as they were doing now. Perhaps the importance of the church is what drove those who were in favor of segregation to attack, bomb and burn black churches across the South. Regardless of the unease felt by African American Christians, the church remained a pillar of hope and stability. During the civil rights movement nearly every African American community had at least one church that provided tangible, moral and spiritual support (Moon 288). Mass meetings and rallies in support of the movement were held at large African American churches. Offerings of money were taken up to provide financial support to those participating in civil rights activities by, for instance, helping jailed demonstrators to make bail and pay various other fines (Moon 288). These actions by African American Christians strengthened the bond not only to one another, but to God as well. Following the civil rights movement, dozens of churches in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Oklahoma that were considered influential were designated as historic landmarks (Moon 288).

Major Christian Coalitions and People of the Movement

Churches were among the public facilities that exercised segregation during the civil rights movement. Many black churches sought to change what had become the norm for African American people. In the late 1940’s, “the Federal Council of Churches, also known as FCC, had adopted a policy statement opposing segregation” (Redditt 184). Shortly after, the National Council of Churches (NCC) began raising awareness of church segregation and held an annual “Race Relations Sunday” where black and willing white congregations worshipped together (Redditt 184). These two councils worked tirelessly throughout the civil rights movement to abolish segregation in churches. In 1955, Martin Luther King, Jr. became the pastor of a Montgomery, Alabama church and was dedicated to ending segregation. He founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which was a coalition of church leaders opposed to segregation in churches and intent on making a difference (Redditt 184). These councils were all a part of the March on Washington and a vital influence on the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The coalitions gave a perception of a united, Christian front to African American congregations across the nation, instilling hope for a peaceful future. The following pastors are just a few of many who contributed their efforts and lives to the passing of civil rights for African Americans.

Ralph Abernathy was an influential minister-activist in the civil rights movement. Abernathy was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s closest ally and he actually suggested the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which led to the desegregation of the public bus system (Palmer 1). Abernathy worked side by side with MLK, but preferred to stay out of the limelight. He co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and presided over the coalition from 1968-1977 while remaining an active Southern pastor (Palmer 3).

Bernard Lee was also in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s inner circle, and was best known for escorting and protecting Dr. King in crowded areas. Lee was a member of many sit-ins with MLK and became the vice president of the SCLC when Dr. King was assassinated. Bernard was originally a student activist but worked his way up to become MLK’s right-hand man and participated in the march from Selma to Montgomery. Bernard served as a pastor in Virginia (“Lee”).

Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth was yet another founder of the SCLC and a minister-activist in the 1960’s. Shuttlesworth survived beatings, arrests, jail sentences, bombings and multiple attempts on his life. The Reverend worked to establish a civil rights museum and continued to pastor until his retirement in 2006 (Moon 308).

Martin Luther King, Jr. was the spokesman and face of minister-activists during the civil rights movement. King is best known for his nonviolent approach to desegregation and his desire for peace. He founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and led many boycotts, sit-ins and marches in order to raise awareness for, as well as fight against, segregation. He was a Southern Baptist minister and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Dr. King was assassinated in 1968 while in Memphis, Tennessee giving a speech (Linthicum 668).

Violence at the Church

The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was a popular meeting place for rights activists in Birmingham, Alabama. Like many other churches during the 1960’s, it provided a safe haven for African Americans to congregate and worship. That sense of safety was shattered on the morning of September 15th, 1963 when a few members of the Ku Klux Klan planted nineteen sticks of dynamite in the basement of the church, killing four innocent girls (Bracks 289). Some would argue the heinous act directly expedited the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because it showed the world no place was safe from the tension caused by the civil rights movement.

The bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was not the only act of its kind. In fact, many churches became targets for those who were opposed to the civil rights movement. Four African American churches were bombed in Montgomery, Alabama in 1957. Later that year, two were burned in Bessemer, Alabama. In 1964, two African Americans were killed when a church used to register black voters was bombed (Simmparris). This went on for many years in multiple states because black churches symbolized the civil rights movement as a whole. When black churches were burned in the 1960’s, not only were their buildings physically incapacitated, but their members often became socially indisposed as well. Many African American congregations were too afraid of being attacked to hold mass meetings or implement new programs that would curb segregation. Therefore, racially motivated arsons, though unsuccessful in destroying the souls of black communities, managed to inflict a significant amount of harm on churches, their congregants, and surrounding communities (Simmparris).

Five Popular Churches in the Sixties

There were many African American churches that had a huge impact on the civil rights movement for one reason or another. However, the following four churches had a significant role in ending segregation during the sixties.

Olivet Baptist Church was an instrumental part of the African American church’s role in the civil rights movement in the early sixties. The church was located in Chicago, Illinois and was the largest congregation around, with thousands of African American members. In 1957, the church was the home of 1,000 religious, civic and business leaders as they discussed the “status of the pending Civil Rights measure, now in Senate” (“Baptists Urge Rights Actions” 2). The long time pastor of Olivet also presided over the National Baptist Convention.

The First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama became one of the largest African American churches in the South just a few years after its establishment. “Years later, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, it was an important gathering place for activities related to the civil rights movement and became associated with the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Freedom ride of May 1961” (“Welcome to the First Baptist Church, Montgomery”). In 2000, First Baptist Church became a historical landmark in Alabama for its role in the end of segregation.

Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began his tumultuous path of ending segregation. Many of King’s movements were planned in the basement of Dexter, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott (“Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church & Parsonage: Montgomery, AL”). Martin Luther King pastored there for six years, which later led the congregation to change the name of the church to Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church (Brooks). It became a National Landmark in 1974.

Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia was the home church of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and was and forever will be a part of his family’s history. His father, Martin Luther King, Sr., pastored the church for forty-four years, while his mother Alberta Williams King was the organist. Alberta was the daughter of the previous pastor, A.D. Williams, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s parents were married in Ebenezer in 1926. Dr. King co-pastored the church with his father and years later he was laid to rest there. On June 30, 1974, Alberta and a deacon were shot and killed during Sunday service by Marcus Chennault (Young 325). On July 16, 1956 the NAACP gathered in the basement of Ebenezer to discuss segregation, which was just one of many civil rights events that took place at the church (“NAACP Meet”).

Conclusion

The civil rights movement was a time in America’s history that will not be forgotten any time soon, especially for those still alive today who lived through the movement decades ago. Any one of those citizens, especially those who are African Americans, would attest to the huge role the church played in a time full of hatred and violence. The people of the church, and the church building itself, proved steadfast in ending segregation and providing African Americans the rights all American citizens deserved. Regardless of one’s beliefs, it is clear that the church provided hope and inspiration to those fighting for liberty in a time when the words “hope” and “inspiration” were scarcely used.

 

Works Cited

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Phipps, Vicki. “The Role of the Black Church in the Civil Rights Movement.” The Jacksonville Free Press: 6 Jan 2013. ProQuest. Web. 29 Nov. 2013.

Redditt, Paul L. “Churches and the Civil Rights Movement.” Encyclopedia of Civil Rights in America. Ed. David Bradley and Shelley Fisher Fishkin. Vol. 1. Armonk, NY: Sharpe Reference, 1998. 184-188. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 29 Nov. 2013.

Simmparris, Michele M. “What Does it Mean to See a Black Church Burning?” Understanding the Significance of Constitutionalizing Hate Speech, 1 University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law (1998): 127-151. Web. 29 Nov. 2013.

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