MORE THAN 50 black women and a handful of black men huddled in a narrow room of an unmarked church on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. The women were adorned with natural hair and were happy to be together, but I noticed a seriousness about them. Many had traveled two hours or more via public transportation. This was not just a meeting: It was an event.
Our gathering formed in the shadow of Brazil’s recent election. Jair Bolsonaro won the Brazilian presidency, promising to target black women activists, LGBTQ people, and others and to bring in militarized security forces to squash violence in shantytown communities known as favelas. Seventy percent of evangelical Christians voted for Bolsonaro, giving him his win.
At our meeting, worship leaders led the women in singing songs about the God who promises a day when oppression will be lifted. One of the songs honored the brown, colonized girl named Maria, whose Magnificat promised these women’s liberation.
A year has passed since the assassination of 38-year-old black Rio de Janeiro councilwoman Marielle Franco. Franco, who challenged police brutality and extrajudicial killings, was shot while riding in the back seat of a car. Two hours before she was slain, she called for black women to engage in politics to bring about a just Brazil. The bullets that killed her were purchased in 2006 by federal police in the nation’s capital city of Brasilia.
Brazil’s Carnival has presented the country as a happy, diverse nation where black women can dance without shame or consequence. I didn’t know Brazil was the last nation in the world to abolish slavery and that 4.8 million Africans were shipped there over a span of nearly 400 years. I also didn’t know that after abolition in Brazil, the Portuguese elite begged Europeans to “whiten” their mostly African nation and “civilize” it. They promised 4 million Europeans seeds and free transportation to Brazil, while formerly enslaved Africans received nothing.
SINCE HOBBY LOBBY won its landmark case in 2014, the religious freedom narrative has been dominated by traditionalist, politically conservative Christians. But for most of our nation’s history, religious freedom was a bipartisan value that echoed a commitment to inclusive pluralism.
In 1993 and 2000, religious freedom laws were passed almost unanimously in Congress, with support from social progressives as well as conservatives. Religious freedom was viewed as a basic constitutional right that should be applied indiscriminately.
The 2016 election only exacerbated the perception of religious freedom as a conservative Christian value. President Trump vocally supported Jack Phillips, the baker of the Masterpiece Cakeshop case who refused to bake for a gay couple’s wedding because of his religious beliefs. Trump took steps to dismantle the Johnson Amendment, which protects nonprofits from partisan political manipulation and, with the signing of the first of his two executive orders on religious freedom, announced, “We are giving our churches their voices back.”
In some cases, conservatives are claiming their right to religious freedom in entirely appropriate ways. Yet, in too many cases, far-right Christians have used religious freedom as a loophole for discrimination or to evade civil rights laws. And secular progressives have allowed them to do it, ceding religious liberty to extremists and jeopardizing this core tenet of democracy.
But that narrative could be changing.
ONE OF THE MOST influential figures in the African-American civil rights movement did not march, organize, or speak at mass rallies. Mystic Howard Thurman found spiritual revelation in nature, championed the use of dance, theater, and nontraditional music in worship, and incorporated silence in his sermons. But his books, preaching, and teaching provided vital philosophical and spiritual underpinnings for the nonviolent resistance methods championed by Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders.
Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story, airing on PBS in February, is a documentary by Martin Doblmeier, the award-winning creator of films on faith including An American Conscience, Chaplains, and Bonhoeffer. In this rich, one-hour portrait of Thurman, civil rights leaders Jesse Jackson Sr., Rep. John Lewis, and others—as well as scholars such as Alton B. Pollard III, Walter Earl Fluker, Luther E. Smith, and Lerita Coleman Brown—offer insights on Thurman’s life, legacy, and the dynamic tension between contemplation and social justice.
The film’s title is from Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited , published in 1949—said to have been carried by King and often cited by other civil rights leaders. Thurman wrote: “The masses of [people] live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed. What does our religion say to them?”
Thurman’s lifelong engagement with this question produced wisdom as vital for our day as it was for his.
The expanded edition of Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders revisits a pivotal civil rights campaign. Filled with mugshots and recent interviews of several riders who were arrested in Jackson, Miss., Breach of Peace honors a historic act of protest. Vanderbilt University Press
One Body, Many Parts
Together at the Table: Diversity Without Division in the United Methodist Church, by Bishop Karen P. Oliveto, the UMC’s first openly LGBTQ bishop, is timely as the denomination nears a potential split over sexuality. Oliveto outlines how her denomination can remain whole. Westminster John Knox Press
Going to a new church as a disabled person is a brave act. Why? Because churches have a history of being unwelcoming to us.
I love the church. I can’t and won’t give the church up, no matter how wounded I feel. Yet, I know more disabled people who have left the church than who have stayed. I know more parents who have left after giving birth to or adopting children with disabilities than who have stayed. Whenever I’m asked about Christian speakers, writers, and leaders who are disabled, I pause to think if I can add any new names to the short list.
Reynolds arrived at an early morning protest in St. Paul, Minn., a few hours after Philando’s death. I heard her tell her story to a small crowd gathered on the street. Weeping, she shared how impossibly stuck they felt in the 74 seconds between stopping their car for the police and Castile being shot multiple times.
Castile was never given a chance to show identification because he was shot as he reached for his wallet. He tried to tell the officer about his legally licensed handgun, but the screaming officer didn’t seem to hear.
As Castile, Reynolds, and her young child ran errands on that summer night, civil rights laws did not protect their “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.” The Civil Rights Act of 1964 allowed for Castile’s employment at an elementary school and made legal their right to move through town. But these rights were not enough to protect Castile’s freedom to live.
What is democracy?
As U.S. Christians and others fight to defend the space for justice created by civil rights movements of the past, another theme rises: What does freedom mean in America today? What does Reynold’s rage require of people of faith?
At a minimum, it requires moving beyond a Sunday school version of democracy, as Southern Freedom Movement leader and historian Vincent Harding put it in 2002. “A solution of the present crisis will not take place unless ... [we] work for it. Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable ... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle. ... This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action,” Harding said, quoting Martin Luther King’s Stride Toward Freedom.
Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson is co-executive director of the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee, an organization founded in the 1930s as a “folk school” to train labor organizers throughout Appalachia and the South. In the 1950s, Highlander was an incubator for the civil rights movement, with trainings led by Septima Clark and Ella Baker. By the 1990s, the center supported anti-strip-mining battles in Appalachia and linked mountain organizers with anti-globalization efforts around the world. Today, Highlander draws on the strengths of immigrants, students, and other local leaders in the rural South to build popular education programs that advance cultural organizing for justice. Former Sojourners editorial assistant Faith Zamblé interviewed Henderson in July.
Faith Zamblé: How would you describe your work at the Highlander Center?
Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson: I describe it as a grand inheritance. I was 31 or 32 when I became the first black woman to be co-executive director of the Highlander Center. And I inherited 86 years of people’s stories and experiences and movement legacy. But with that legacy comes a great responsibility to make sure that the Highlander Center isn’t just a living museum, where people come to study what was; it should also be a place where people can learn how to do things now. It’s living in the past, present, and future at the same time, every day, all day.
I want students at Christians schools to have what I didn’t get to have. I want to see Christian schools actively teach the failures of the historic and modern church in America. I want to see curriculum created on how most Christians responded – with Bible verses in hand – to justify what we now know to be unjust. I still think teaching students about outliers like Wilberforce, Bonhoeffer, and MLK Jr., Christians who defied the church for the sake of justice, is important, but students should also be taught that the church can get it wrong, has gotten it wrong, will get it wrong.
ProPublica has released a new interactive database that allows users to examine racial disparities in more than 96,000 individual public and charter schools, and 17,000 districts across the United States.
You can search the racial composition of individual schools and also compare school districts on issues of opportunity, discipline, segregation, and achievement gap.
As a civil rights activist from the civil rights movement of the ‘60s, I continue to believe that everyone has constitutional rights. Thousands of Americans are being denied their civil and human rights because insensitive or politically manipulated legislators are creating policies that are destroying the environment. When profits, rather than the well-being of human and environmental life, determine the survival of the planet, it is a civil rights issue.
From ‘war on poverty’ to ‘war on drugs’
This conflict has implications far beyond cake shops or even adoption. Most states still don't protect LGBTQ individuals from discrimination in the workplace, housing, and public accommodations., and under the Trump administration, the Justice Department has taken the position that the 1964 Civil Rights Act does not cover sexual orientation or gender identity. Wherever advocacy groups are able to secure legal protections for LGBTQ individuals, we should expect pushback from certain religious groups hoping to gain an exemption from those rules.
Another issue that we know: In a number of states, pregnant women, when they give birth in the midst of their sentences, they’re forced to be shackled to a gurney in the midst of their delivery process. We know being born into that stress-induced state has irreversible cognitive impacts on the child, but we still haven’t changed the law in light of that.
Women's, LGBTQ rights, and other physician groups have expressed concern for the heavy implications on patients' access to abortion and treating LGBTQ patients.
Faith and civil rights leaders from across the country gathered in front of the Supreme Court today in support of Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins — the couple at the center of the Masterpiece vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case.
If you went to church after Charlottesville, DACA, or the latest racial violence in your community, and were disappointed your pastor didn't speak, then it's time for you to act. Sitting and not liking what’s going on matters as much now as it did to stay in a segregated church back then. It’s time for you to find others in the congregation who are also disappointed. It’s time for you to go to your pastor and other leaders in the church. It’s time to insist he/she begin to speak justice — gospel — from the pulpit. (Pastors, it’s time for you to find those in your congregation who will stand with you as you do the same.)
Father: The necessity of the black church, the African-American church, I think is continuing and compelling. We in my generation depended on the delivery of the Word from the individual but we did not take advantage of all of the technology that was becoming big. I think in this age we must utilize all of the technology plus imagination and all of the equipment that’s available to us to communicate, to involve and to be relevant and liberating both in our word and in our deed.
The civil rights case of Slager's involvement in Scott's death was slated to go to trial later this month. Slager faces several charges in the death of Walter Scott, including lying to fellow law enforcement officers about details of the incident. Moments following Walter Scott’s death were captured on video, and in the video Slager places an object besides Scott’s body — suspected to be his Taser, which would go against Slager’s account that Scott took Slager’s Taser.
A U.S. federal judge in Virginia ruled on March 24 that President Donald Trump's travel ban was justified, increasing the likelihood the measure will go before the Supreme Court, as the decision took an opposing view to courts in Maryland and Hawaii that have halted the order.
U.S. District Court Judge Anthony Trenga rejected arguments by Muslim plaintiffs, who claimed Trump's March 6 executive order temporarily banning the entry of all refugees and travelers from six Muslim-majority countries was discriminatory.
Height is something of an unsung hero to both the civil rights and women’s rights movements, largely because of the sexism within the civil rights movement and the racism within the women rights movement. According to the New York Times, Height is “widely credited as the first person in the modern civil rights era to treat the problems of equality for women and equality for African-Americans as a seamless whole, merging concerns that had been largely historically separate.”