Influence of Religion on the Civil Rights Movement
Religion has had a profound effect on numerous events throughout the course of American history. The Civil Rights Movement was not withheld from the influence of religion, particularly Christianity and Islam. Many of the key players such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, who were devoted to the cause of justice and equality for African Americans, gained their passion from their spiritual roots. Through these religious leaders organizations were established to fight for civil rights. It was through these religious men and the religion of blacks that the fight for equality gained enthusiasm and courage to fight oppression and discrimination. Opposition also came from religion, however. Reverend Jerry Falwell and the white supremacists of the Ku Klux Klan, who fought against the Civil Rights Movement, based their justification for an inferior black race on their religious beliefs. The Civil Rights Movement, by the people and parties involved, was in itself a battle of beliefs.
How is religion involved in the progression and initiation of the fight for equality for African Americans? Christianity, being the a religion active in the Civil Rights Movement, has aspects within its doctrine that encourages equality. It contributed in giving African Americans the passion and the support to continue on in the struggle despite its hardships. “‘I come to preach, to liberate them’….The thrust of the Civil Rights Movement…was that God was on the side of the oppressed, the poor, the downtrodden, the outcast, the persecuted, the exploited. God is on the side of justice” (Williams 119). Those that believed in God also believed that this divine, powerful being was behind their every effort and would grant them victory in the battle for civil rights. They saw themselves as the persecuted and knew that their God would have compassion on them through their difficulty. Moreover, the Christian faith brought unity among African American because they saw others turning to faith for hope to gain equality and so they followed suit. “According to several respondents, religion engendered in them collective identities and meanings that imbued a sense of purpose” (Williams 113). It “inspired the construction of perspectives proclaiming, ‘people who were products of segregation must be viewed theologically as the poor, the handicapped, the downtrodden. And theologically we have a responsibility to use our faith—to not be afraid to confront the oppressor’” (Williams 113). Many Christians believed it was their duty and their way of showing obedience to God by fighting those who discriminated against them. Christianity was certainly a motivator and contributor to the Civil Rights Movement. It caused African Americans to not limit their movement to the potential of a human being. Instead, they gained hope in believing that something more powerful than them was working to give them equality.
Despite the unity and empowerment that blacks received from their churches, white churches mostly existed in the background and never really urged their members to partake in the Civil Rights Movement. Rather, they sat back in a more comfortable position and consented to the Supreme Court’s decision to segregate. Integration, although it did occur, had a very slow progression in Caucasian churches and schools. Roman Catholicism was the first Christian sect to completely integrate their parochial schools (Mathisen 575). With Catholics and most other sects of Christianity, preachers gave sermons to white folks, many of whom favored segregation. If a pastor spoke out about the injustices of discrimination and encouraged civil rights, they might be removed from their position as a clergyman. Moreover, Ku Klux Klan members were mixed in their churches as well. “Much of the minister’s ardor is dampened when he returns to his flock though this is not to say that he bends completely to their will. It is not...
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Mathisen, Robert R. Critical Issues in American Religious History. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2001. Print.
Williams, Johnny E. African American Religion and the Civil Rights Movement in Arkansas. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003. Print.
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