Civil Rights Movement

Lisa Sharon Harper 05-28-2014
Maya Angelou, public domain; illustration by Brandon Hook / Sojourners

Maya Angelou, public domain; illustration by Brandon Hook / Sojourners

When I heard the news I wept.

“Renowned Poet and Author Maya Angelou Dies at 86,” read the NBC News headline.

My fruitless effort to hold back tears was proven vain as I made my way into the bowels of a D.C. Metro station — tears streaming. I felt silly.

“Why am I crying,” I thought. “I didn’t know Maya Angelou.” I met her once, but she wasn’t family or a close friend, yet I was reacting with the same profound sense of loss, as if my own beloved great grandmother had passed?

The New York Times called her a “lyrical witness of the Jim Crow South” in the headline that announced Ms. Angelou’s death this morning. But for nearly four decades Dr. Maya Angelou served as a kind of great grandmother of the African-American community — a bridge between the ancestors and us.

Ben Sutter 05-20-2014

Vincent Harding passed away on Monday. Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Sojourners

Dr. Vincent Harding, a theologian, historian, author, and civil right activist, died at 5:11 p.m. on Monday at the age of 82. Dr. Harding worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as friend, speechwriter, co-collaborator, and served as a mentor and advisor to many of the members of the Student Non-violent Coordination Committee.

Harding's social activism had deep spiritual roots in the Mennonite tradition and the Black church. Dr. Harding was one of the chroniclers of the civil rights movement as a participant, an historian, and social observer. He and his late wife Rosemarie were senior consultants to the "Eyes of the Prize" documentary film project.

Harding was a professor emeritus at the Iliff School of Theology and co-founder with his wife Rosemarie Freeney Harding of the Veterans of Hope Project, at the Center for the Study of Religion and Democratic Renewal at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. He is also the author of numerous books, including Hope and History: Why We Must Share the Story of the MovementThere is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America, and Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero. Harding wrote King's famous 1967 "Beyond Vietnam" speech.

Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners and a friend of Harding, released this statement in response to Harding's death:

This is a great loss for our movement and the world and for all of us here at Sojourners. Vincent loved and served us so often in our history. He was an elder and mentor to me and to many of us. I am so grateful for a life so well lived. Thanks be to God for Vincent Harding. We are poorer for his passing and richer for having known him.

John Perkins 01-05-2014

The Dividing Wall in America

Jesse James DeConto 12-13-2013

'This Little Light of Mine' takes on a whole new meaning in the context of the civil rights movement. il_76/Shutterstock

We used to sing this song in Sunday School, as far back as I can remember, way back when I was learning to use a big-boy potty and tie my shoes. The little light was our faith in Jesus, and letting it shine was sharing it with others, who didn't know him. Jesus loved the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they were precious in his sight, Jesus loved the little children of the world. He would make us FISHERS! of men, FISHERS! of men, FISHERS! of men, if we followed him, if we followed him, if we FAW! LOWED! HIM! I should dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone, dare to have a purpose firm, dare to make it known. Even if they fed me to the lions.

It took almost 30 years for me to really see "This Little Light" in action. Before that, it was mostly an ideal standard that made me feel guilty for not living up to it, a measuring stick that set me in competition with all the other little lights around me; if I shined a little brighter, you'd try too. But two years before Occupy Wall Street demanded economic reform at the national level, the candles lit in Charlotte, N.C., as hundreds of protestors marched on Bank of America and Wachovia in the fall of 2009. In the midst of the subprime mortgage crisis, with people facing ballooning interest rates and foreclosures on their homes, organizers delivered a theological statement against what they called "usury" — the Old Testament sin of collecting interest from the poor.

They were among the youngest martyrs of the civil rights movement, four young black girls — three 14-year-olds and one 11-year-old — whose deaths in a church basement horrified a nation already torn apart by segregation.

This week, 50 years after the Ku Klux Klan bombing at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., shook hopes for a colorblind country, the four girls are getting their due.

Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair were posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on Tuesday (Sept. 10), a day after a piece of shattered stained glass from the church was donated to the Smithsonian.

RNS photo by Lauren Markoe

The interfaith service at Washington’s Shiloh Baptist Church. RNS photo by Lauren Markoe

WASHINGTON — Fifty years to the day after Martin Luther King, Jr., knocked on the nation’s conscience with his dream, religious leaders gathered in a historic church to remind the nation that he was fueled by faith.

Later, in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial where King thundered about America’s unmet promises, King’s children joined the likes of President Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey to rekindle what Obama called a “coalition of conscience.”

At Shiloh Baptist Church, where King preached three years before his 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh clergy summoned King’s prophetic spirit to help reignite the religious fires of the civil rights movement.

King’s daughter, the Rev. Bernice A. King, said at the service that her father was a freedom fighter and a civil rights leader, but his essence was something else.

“He was a pastor,” said King, who was 5 when her father electrified the nation in front of the Lincoln Memorial. “He was a prophet. He was a faith leader.”

Adam Taylor 08-23-2013
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

March on Washington, 1963, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration / Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

I will march on Saturday because I refuse to allow my two sons to be treated as statistics or a stereotypes rather than as children of God. I will march because overly aggressive policing tactics that overly rely upon racial profiling make a mockery of Dr. King’s dream that every child will be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.   

I will march because the recent repeal of section four of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court jeopardizes the voting rights of millions of Americans across the country, particularly in southern states where new barriers to this sacred right are already being erected. 

I will march because based on national statistics, my two black boys face a one in three chance of spending some time of their lives behind bars, a disturbing and destructive reality that has been made possible in part by mandatory drug sentencing laws that must be reevaluated and changed.  

Stacey Schwenker 08-21-2013

As people stepped on our toes and stood anxiously in front of us, waiting to exit the crowded theater, three of us sat weeping at the close of Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Even now, as I recall that moment, it brings tears to my eyes.

How do I describe the movie? Utterly intense. Remarkable. Heartbreaking. Inspiring. A genius capturing of the complexities of the Civil Rights Movement, of the history of race in America in the 20th and early 21st centuries, of presidential decision making, and of family.

I sat next to my colleague, Lisa Sharon Harper, who sobbed at the violence, tragedy, and passionate courage displayed on screen. It was a challenge. To be a white woman sitting next to an African-American woman as she wept over the suffering of her people — often at the hands of my people. It was neither her nor I who had perpetrated these specific acts, but we are certainly still caught in the tangled web of systemic racism and the histories that our ancestors have wrought us.

Even as we had waited in the theater prior to the movie's start, we spoke of serious subjects. She shared some of her lineage and the challenges of legal records that simply do not exist when ancestors are slaves or perhaps a Cherokee Indian who escaped the Trail of Tears in Kentucky and suddenly appears on the U.S. Census in 1850 as an adult. We spoke of her leadership in the church, and I encouraged her to continue speaking even though she is one of the lone women who graces the stages in front of national audiences. I told her, "You must do this so that other women who come after you can do this. You must do this for women right now. You must do this so that I can do this." We bonded over being women in ministry.

And then the separation came. I do not know Lisa's shoes — the road that she walks due to the color of her skin. I see her in all of her glory — passion, intelligence, creativity — and not in all of her blackness. Our world sees her with racial eyes.

Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners

Nate Powell (l), Congressman John Lewis, and Andrew Aydin on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners

It may have taken a little bit of prodding — a little ‘you-want-me-to-do-what?’ and a lot of faith — but in the end, Congressman John Lewis agreed to go along with staffer Andrew Aydin’s out-of-the-box idea. The result: March (Book 1) — the first of a three-part graphic novel autobiography chronicling Lewis’ life and the Civil Rights Movement.

“The story of the movement that we tell is very much John Lewis’ story in this first book,” Aydin said. “It is a story of him growing up poor, on a farm, and it builds to a climax of the national sit-in movement.”

Lewis certainly has a lot to tell. He and other activists famously were beaten by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965 during an attempted march for voting rights — an event that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” He served as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the height of the movement, spoke at the historic March on Washington alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and was instrumental in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Aydin, who co-wrote the book with Congressman Lewis, and illustrator Nate Powell sat down with Sojourners to explain how the series came about and why it is such an important story these 50 years later.

Eric Martin 04-04-2013
World Telegram & Sun photo by Dick DeMarsico. / Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1964, World Telegram & Sun photo by Dick DeMarsico. / Wikimedia Commons

This August will mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and there will rightly be much remembrance and celebration of its place in American history. But there is another anniversary that our nation, and especially its Christians, would do well to acknowledge, investigate, and ruminate.

Forty-five years ago yesterday, Dr. King arrived in Memphis, Tenn., to support a sanitation workers’ strike seeking to unionize. He was assassinated the next day — the anniversary we today remember — and in a sad irony our nation began the sanitation of his legacy. Indeed, King’s decision to join the Memphis struggle was just one of many acts that clash with what David Sirota calls the “Santa Clausified” image of King that we pass to our youth. 

Cathleen Falsani 01-13-2012

Fifty years ago, not long after his graduation from Brandeis University, Rabbi Allen Secher became a Freedom Rider, joining Dr. Martin Luther King's historic fight for equality in the South. In Albany, Georgia, Secher, who served congregations in Mexico City, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago before relocating to Whitefish, Mont., several years ago (where he was, for a time, the only resident rabbi in the entire state), was jailed for a week along with a number of other Freedom Riders.

Inside, watch Secher, aka "The Naked Rabbi," tell the story of the Freedom Rides and his encounter with King.

Jim Wallis 10-28-2011

If justice is only an implication, it can easily become optional and, especially in privileged churches, non-existent. In the New Testament, conversion happens in two movements: Repentance and following. Belief and obedience. Salvation and justice. Faith and discipleship.

Atonement-only theology and its churches are in most serious jeopardy of missing the vision of justice at the heart of the kingdom of God. The atonement-only gospel is simply too small, too narrow, too bifurcated, and ultimately too private.

Duane Shank 10-06-2011

The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a pioneer and giant of the civil rights movement, died Wednesday at 89.

Jim Wallis 09-15-2011

Sojourners has always tried to understand and advocate for "biblical politics." But what does that mean now, especially as we approach another major election?

I was talking the other day to a Christian leader who has given his life to working with the poor. His approach is very grassroots -- he lives in a poor, virtually all-minority community and provides basic services for low-income people. He said, "If you work with and for the poor, you inevitably run into injustice." In other words, poverty isn't caused by accident. There are unjust systems and structures that create and perpetuate poverty and human suffering. And service alone is never enough; working to change both the attitudes and institutional arrangements that cause poverty is required.

Mary Elizabeth King 08-29-2011

The forthcoming dedication of the national memorial monument honoring Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., affords an opening for considering the complexity and meaning of his leadership. He was not the tamed and desiccated civil hero as often portrayed in the United States around the time of his birthday, celebrated as a national holiday. He was until the moment of his death raising issues that challenged the conventional wisdom on poverty and racism, but also concerning war and peace.

King was in St. Joseph's Infirmary, Atlanta, for exhaustion and a viral infection when it was reported that he would receive the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. As Gary M. Pomerantz writes in Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn, this was the apparent cost exacted by intelligence surveillance efforts and the pressures of learning that Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had formally approved wiretaps by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. His evolving strength as a leader is revealed in his remarks in Norway that December, which linked the nonviolent struggle of the U.S. civil rights movement to the entire planet's need for disarmament.

Mary Elizabeth King 08-16-2011

The rioting and rampages that spread across English cities last week have caused severe property destruction and raised public alarm. Writing in London's Guardian, community organizer Stafford Scott describes how he was among the group that on August 6 sought information from the police in Tottenham, a poorer section of London. They wanted an official statement on whether Mark Duggan had been killed by police bullets, as had been reported in the news.

All we really wanted was an explanation of what was going on. We needed to hear directly from the police. We waited for hours outside the station for a senior officer to speak with the family, in a demonstration led by young women. A woman-only delegation went into the station, as we wanted to ensure that this did not become confrontational. It was when the young women, many with children, decided to call it a day that the atmosphere changed, and guys in the crowd started to voice and then act out their frustrations.

This event is what most media accounts have identified as the spark that set England on fire, which has caught the world by surprise. Yet, says Scott, "If the rioting was a surprise, people weren't looking."

Mary Elizabeth King 07-26-2011

'Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Mathew Ahmann, Executive Director of the National Catholic Conference for Interrracial Justice, in a crowd.], 08/28/1963' photo (c) 1963, The U.S. National Archives - license: should music rank among the ever-growing list of time-tested nonviolent methods such as boycotts, marches, strikes, sit-ins, and vigils?

Anthony Shadid of the New York Times reports that a song, "Come on Bashar, Leave," is spreading across Syria, boldly calling on President Bashar al-Assad to step down. (Bryan Farrell also wrote about it at the Waging Nonviolence blog.) The article suggests that a young cement layer who chanted it in demonstrations was pulled from the Orontes River this month, his throat having been cut, and, according to residents of the city of Hama, his vocal chords torn out. Hama is where, in 1982, then-president Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president named in the song, gave orders to the army to massacre more than 10,000 in putting down an Islamist upheaval. Today, boys 6-years-old and older vocalize their own rendition of the original warbler's song instead. As the song has sped across Syria, demonstrators have adopted it for themselves.

Lisa Sharon Harper 07-22-2011

Shakespeare said a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Maybe, but a Stink Rose by any other name (say... garlic?) might get more play.

On July 19, Campus Crusade for Christ announced its plan to officially change its name to Cru in early 2012.

Brown v. Board of Education had not yet been fought in the Supreme Court when Bill and Vonetta Bright christened their evangelical campus-based ministry Campus Crusade for Christ in 1951. The evangelical church context was overwhelmingly white, middle class, and suburban. The nation and the church had not yet been pressed to look its racist past and present in the face. The world had not yet been rocked by the international fall of colonialism, the rise of the Civil Rights movement, the disillusionment of the Vietnam War, the burnt bras of the women's liberation movement, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the rise of the Black middle class (more African Americans now live in the suburbs than in inner cities). In short, theirs was not the world we live in today. So, the name Campus Crusade for Christ smelled sweet. Over the past 20 years, though, it has become a Stink Rose ... warding off many who might otherwise have come near.

Betsy Shirley 05-16-2011
By the time Egyptian activists in Tahrir square had ousted Mubarak, I'd read more articles labeling it a "Facebook revolution" than you can wave a shoe at.
Claire Lorentzen 05-06-2011

At Sojourners, we have always been advocates of principled nonviolence. But all too often, conventional wisdom has seen nonviolence as passivity, even in the face of injustice.