Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Religion, Politics, and Civil Rights

Ross Douthat has a post comparing the role of religion in today's GOP with the role of religion in the civil rights movement. In response, Andrew Sullivan claims that the the current GOP is a sectarian religious movement while the civil rights movement was ecumenical. Nonetheless, both seem to agree that the civil rights movement was primarily a religious movement. In my view, this overstates things.

Yes, King was a minister and often invoked the Bible. Yes, the black church provided a rallying point and resources for the movement. Yes, religious leaders of many faiths supported the civil rights movement. But to claim that the civil rights movement was therefore a religious movement overlooks the fundamentally political nature of the movement. For example, what about the NAACP's legal campaign against segregated schools. Surely this was an important part of the civil rights struggle, but there's nothing much religious about it. How about SNCC and the Freedom Riders? No religion there. James Meredith? Same.

It's also easy to overestimate the role of religion in King's rhetoric. Below is his "I Have a Dream Speech," the speech that many consider to be the primary text of the civil rights movement. I've underlined the sections with clear references to religion, but even some of these are examples of using religious or biblical language to make a secular point. It seems to me that overall, King's speech is largely secular and his use of religion is secondary to his secular political and historical points, particularly the references to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the American Dream.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity. But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free.

One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.

So we have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition. In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.

This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.

So we have come to cash this check -- a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God's children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of the Negro. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.

The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges. But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. we must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" we can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal." I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor's lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. This is the faith with which I return to the South. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring." And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania! Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado! Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California! But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia! Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee! Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"


QPRHigh said...

How much credit would you give religion as a foundation of the Civil Rights movement? Where do you think Dr. King and his followers found the courage to walk through the dark valleys they traversed? From the mere poetry of Dr. King's words? Religious words spoken without faith in their ultimate meaning are simply words. You may as well say that John Paul II was an OK guy, but those secularists opposing Communism behind the Iron Curtain were fed by his words alone and had no need for his quaint Christian faith.

jjv said...

Interesting post. However, since I think at least the Declaration of Independence and the American Dream are religiously inspired I don't think King's reliance on them detracts from the religiousness of the movement. Also, I think the religious element made the movement acceptable to middle America in a way no protest movement had been since the Populists (hey wasn't that "cross of gold" stuff religious?) or has been since, except for the Pro-life movement (which may be too religious).

Darryl Cox said...

Anyone who seriously describes the Civil Rights movement as a religious movement is either engaging in wishful thinking or doesn't understand and appreciate the role that religion plays and does not play in the lives of African Americans and their culture. In fact, let me go a little further. This line of argument or analysis seems to draw its inspiration from the line put forth by Republican Party recruiters who are vexed by the fact that although black Americans are generally described as being socially conservative it has not resulted in any appreciable increase of blacks switching their party preferences to the GOP.

Religious faith did play a significant role in shaping the views, tactics and strategies of many black people who played instrumental roles in the Civil Rights movement. It is important to keep in mind, however, that while religious beliefs and faith certainly helped to shape their work in this struggle, it did not form an overarching boundary to their efforts. What they sought to achieve was influenced by, say, their metaphysical beliefs but what they accomplished transcended those beliefs as well.

To attribute the success or acceptance of the Civil Rights movement to its religious aspects is to ignore the peculiar genius that the American Negro people have displayed for nearly four centuries for taking what they have found in this still strange land and adapting it to usages that reflect their needs and world views. One can hear, for example, echoes of the black church throughout the music of Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Cannonball Adderly, but it would be a mistake to attribute their music solely to the influence of the black church or to their personal religious beliefs. A careful listener can still hear a blending of the sacred and profane in the music of the great gospel composer Thomas E. Dorsey.

The influence of the black church is never far away even from those in the black community whose "lifestyles" (e.g., Bayard Rustin) would have placed them at some distance from the commonly understood teachings of the church. The Civil Rights movement was an American mass movement initiated by a people who have always striven to affirm the principles upon which this nation was founded. To point to religion as thoutstanding feature of this movement is to misunderstand its leaders, participants, goals and origins.