Christianity served an important role in mobilizing and uplifting black people before and during the Civil Rights Movement. Christianity provided a means of freedom, hope, a platform for advocacy and activism since the first African slave reached the shores of what is now the United States. In slavery, Christianity was used as a method to keep slaves bonded mentally, however, slaves saw Christianity as something else. Slave believed that Christianity would bring them their freedom.
Of course, under the words in the bible leaned more towards freedom than servitude of other human beings. In Paul Harvey’s Bounds of Their Habitation: Race and Religion in American History, which dives into different eras of American History and its dealings with race and religion, Harvey states, “the 1723 letter from the slaves to the bishop made clear, slaves recognized that conversion implied that they should have the rights of free men” (Harvey 29). Slaves believe that the conversion to Christianity would bring them freedom.
Would allow them to be a citizen of the world they were brought her to be slaves. Although slave masters did everything in their powers o make it impossible to be free once converting to Christianity, it did not take the Christian spirit and hope from them. This could be seen “in South Carolina, [where] religious inspired revolt shook the foundation of a colony populated primarily by recently arrived Africans and blacks from the Caribbean” (Harvey 33). Although violent the slaves did not give up hope of freedom and seek it by any means.
Freedom will eventually come and Christianity will still be a driving force in demanding a just life. In the beginning era of Reconstruction, black people began to make a difference in the places that they ived. The Christian religion was at the forefront of getting black politicians in government seats to evoke change within the system: “Black clergymen after the Civil War insisted that freedpeople were equal citizens who deserved just treatment under the law…
The political activism of many clergymen matched the religious rhetoric. Well over two hundred black clergymen held local, state” (Harvey 102). Christian clergymen were advocates on the frontlines trying to push the status quo and use their religious platforms to control the narrative of black people and demand equality for black individuals. During he reconstruction period, churches organize a protest for the unlawful arresting of black people due to curfew violations, which were part of the black codes.
Henry McNeal Turner, a prominent minister during reconstruction, used his religious platform to help freedpeople gain full citizenship while starting the African Methodist Episcopal Church throughout the south. Turner believed, “Because God saw fit to make some red, and some white, and some black, and some brown, are we to sit here in judgment upon what God has seen fit to do” (Harvey 105). Turner continued for the rest of his life in the church, ainly preaching for freedpeople to prepare for emigration to Africa. His activism with the church set a precedent for black ministers in the South.
The Civil Rights Movement provided a great Freedom Singers – From slave spiritual to call-n-response during a protest during the civil right movement, religious music/singers have been a component to activism against racial injustices. Original slave songs will transform for the civil rights movement, and even to fit the specific event that was taking place that day. A powerful part of the Civil Rights Movement is the freedom songs during the marches. Singers would take gospel songs/ negro spirituals and change the words to fit the mission of the event they were singing at.
For example, the song Oh, Freedom, lyrics are as such: “Oh Freedom! Oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom over me and before l’d be a slave l’ll be buried in my grave / And go home to my Lord and be free / No more weepin’, no more weepin’, no more weepin’ over me / And before l’d be a slave l’ll be buried in my grave / And go home to my Lord and be free” (Benkert 2). For purposes of relatability to the era and marching, the song lyric change in the second verse, his becomes the freedom song. It now reads, “No more Jim Crow, no more Jim Crow, no more Jim Crow ‘over me / And before l’d be a slave l’ll be buried in my grave / And go home to my Lord and be free” (Benkert 2).
There is a switch of words from weepin to Jim Crow. The simple switch of the words and incite many people to march together for an end to Jim Crow. Music was a tool to excite those who were marching, as well as agitate those who could not take the joy of singing away. Fannie Lou Hamer was a daughter of a sharecropper in Mississippi, who courageously gave a speech in front of the democratic ational tv to advocate for equal rights. Hamer’s language in her speeches to other black people in Mississippi was based on her knowledge of the Bible.
Some of Fannie Lou Hamer’s rhetoric includes, “God wants us to take a stand. We can stand by registering to vote,” and “If Christ were here today, he would be branded a radical, a militant, .. [a] revolutionary person, out there where it was happening. That’s what God is all about, and that’s where I get my strength” (Harvey 168). Her use of religious language is no different from other leaders of the time. Although she was not a polish speaker, she uses her knowledge f her religion to incite the people into knowing their rights as human beings, as citizens.
Martin Luther King Jr. did the same in many of his speeches as well. He is known as reverend, so it would be uncommon to not here Christian rhetoric into his speeches. Particularly in the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King in a response to fellow clergymen, made it clear with biblical references that the means in which he seeks justice in a just world is not unusual amongst individuals in the Bible, especially Jesus. King shows that Christianity and Biblical stories serve as a guide and lesson for marginalized people to vercome the system of oppression.
An example of this rhetoric, is his response to the clergymen calling his actions in Birmingham extreme: I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love? — “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you. ” Was not Amos an extremist for justice? — “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. ” Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ? — “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus. (King 5).
King points out the biblical figures like Paul, Amos and Jesus were not extreme getting justice for the being wrong. By using these figures, King use his knowledge as a reverend to educate the clergymen, who may think his fight for justice is extreme, but like others in which these clergymen study and teach about, he is not different. Religion in this scenario is a used as a mean to educate other Christians on the fight for civil rights for marginalized groups. These biblical figure as serve as a model to King as he continues to fight for justice the way he knows best.