The Common Good
May-June 2003

Saving Grace

by Helena R. Henderson | May-June 2003

It's hard to imagine a noteworthy book about the civil rights movement that doesn't include the powerful ingredients of religion and faith. 

It's hard to imagine a noteworthy book about the civil rights movement that doesn't include the powerful ingredients of religion and faith. Fortunately, two new publications explore these themes, each with a distinct approach: Witnessing and Testifying, by Rosetta E. Ross, an ethics professor at United Theological Seminary in the Twin Cities, and This Far By Faith, by Juan Williams and Quinton Dixie, correspondent for NPR and Indiana University professor, respectively. The first book adds to the body of civil rights literature rich biographical insight into the lives of seven black women activists. The latter is a historical overview of the movement in which religion and faith are central characters in the story for equality in America.

Ross' theological framework revolves around a central theme, that "survival" and "racial uplift" practices were inextricably linked for black women activists. By racial uplift Ross means the desire and strivings of African Americans to survive slavery, gain independence, develop self-sufficiency and well-being, and engage as full participants in the body politic. For black women activists, witnessing and testifying became, quite naturally, a public extension of their faith and allegiance to God.

Detailed biographies of Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Fannie Lou Hamer, Victoria Way DeLee, Clara Muhammad, Diane Nash, and Ruby Doris Smith Robinson—six Christians and one Muslim—allow us to see the diversity of racist experiences that led these women into the movement. Chicago native Diane Nash, for example, was a high school beauty queen unfamiliar with the realities of racist Southern life. She, as Ross notes, expected her life "to pursue a rather quiet course." Ross vividly details Nash's encounters with racism and the many years of activism that followed, including her efforts to organize student peace demonstrations, as well as her being jailed during her first pregnancy.

HISTORY FANS WILL enjoy This Far By Faith, an impressively detailed historical account of the early days of the black religious experience. Combing through decade after decade, Williams and Dixie chronicle the challenges and obstacles in American history that led to the emergence of religious pioneers such as Henry McNeal Turner, Richard Allen, Elijah Muhammad, and Martin Luther King Jr. Along with chilling, grim reminders of the savagery of slavery, Faith includes estimates on how many Africans were taken as slaves to America; portraits of Sojourner Truth, William Seymour—considered a founder of the Pentecostal movement—and Howard Thurman; and a section on the music of protest.

Individually and together, these books promote a continued exploration of faith and religion in the lives of black Americans during the most significant social movement in American history—and they remind us just how much history has to teach us about the present.

Helena R. Henderson is director of communications for Call to Renewal in Washington, D.C.

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