My early memories of Martin Luther King Jr. impressed upon me how America’s racial freedom struggle is fueled greatly by the Black Church. Resistance was fueled by faith in a better world and the courage to resist. Although I am not a believer, and despite the fact that Christianity was often used to defend slavery, I deeply respect the anti-racism work of Black Americans inspired by faith.
In Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, Eugene Genovese argued that “religion provided slaves with stamina and self-respect” that was “the organizing center of their resistance” (New York Times 9/29/74). Religion impelled Black abolitionist David Walker to urge enslaved people to rebel in his “Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World.” Faith inspired Harriet Tubman (Blog #51), and she was helped to escape by Reverend Samuel Green. Other ministers played similar roles in the Underground Railroad.
A century later, during the civil rights movement, the church empowered resistance. Professor Manning Marable explained that this grew from the fact that for generations, the church was the only place Blacks could gather. And though “[m]ost black ministers stood on the sidelines,” Marable points out that 10-15 black churches were pivotal in the Montgomery bus boycott, and twice that many helped the 1963 Birmingham protests succeed.
The link between the church and social justice is part of my current activism in Baltimore and Philadelphia. Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), an “interfaith, multiracial community power organization,” has focused on racism since it was founded by clergy activists Vernon Dobson, Wendell Phillips, and Clare O’Dwyer. Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower, and Rebuild (POWER) was born of similar forces, particularly one founding institution: Mother Bethel AME Church.
Its founder, Richard Allen (1760–1831), walked out of St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia because of racist rules about when and where he could worship. In 1787, along with Absalom Jones, Allen formed the Free African Society to assist fugitive slaves. They bought land in 1794 on Sixth Street in Philadelphia, the longest continually Black-owned private property in America, where today Senior Pastor of Mother Bethel, Rev. Mark Tyler, inspires POWER members. He builds on the AME tradition and leaders such as James H. Cone, who formulated black liberation theology asserting the centrality of Black Power in the overthrow of white supremacy. On this Christmas eve I thank Rev. Tyler and others for preaching justice.
Lesson #275: Though I happen to be an atheist, my moral compass was shaped by a man of faith, Martin Luther King Jr. He wrote, “Religion operates not only on the vertical plane but also on the horizontal. It seeks not only to integrate men with God but to integrate men with men and each man with himself.” While I don’t embrace claims about the “vertical plane” (nor the gendered use of “men” as a universal), for many people, religious faith motivates them to aid their brothers and sisters. Theological differences should not get in the way of working to make this world more compassionate and just.
Lesson #276: Secular people can work with religious people to do good without denying the unethical aspects of religion or succumbing to superstition. As Genovese explained, “The truth of religion comes from its symbolic rendering of man’s moral experience: it proceeds intuitively and imaginatively. Its’ falsehood comes from its attempt to substitute itself for science and to pretend that its poetic statements are information about reality.”
Lesson #277: Some claim that the first mass protest of Black Americans occurred in January of 1817 when hundreds of people met at Mother Bethel AME church to condemn plans to send free Black Americans back to Africa, as suggested by the American Colonization Society. Some white allies supported this resistance, including the editor of the New York Courier who suggested that a powerful supporter of the resettlement plan, politician Henry Clay, take his own advice and return to England from where his ancestors came. For more see an article in Black Past.
Lesson #278: Today’s social justice work cannot rely solely on religious institutions to build justice. Generational challenges and technological change mean that religious institutions must adapt and lead in coalition with non-theist and non-religious forces. See this article by Danielle Cadet for a more in-depth analysis.
Lesson #279: America’s twisted entanglement of justice and injustice is evident in the fact that Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was once owned by the Pennsylvania Chief Justice Benjamin Chew, who was also the personal lawyer for Willam Penn.
Lesson #280: Many Black Americans embrace Kwanzaa as an alternative to Christmas. It was created by Black Power activist and secular humanist Maulana Karenga. Though only 53 years old, Kwanzaa carries great meaning to many who embrace African ancestry and will be celebrating this year from December 26-January 1.