4-16-2014
In 1853, no one could have imagined that the end of slavery in the United States was just 10 years away. Since the 1660s, race-based slavery had upheld the economic base of both the northern and southern colonies and subsequently the United States. The South's agricultural way of life had been made possible and sustained through the backbreaking labor of millions of people who worked in their fields for free.
Sara J. Wolcott 4-03-2014

On Feb. 8, tens of thousands of people gathered in the North Carolina capital city, Raleigh, for what organizers called the Moral March. It was a follow-up to last year’s “Moral Monday” movement that started in April 2013 when Rev. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, and 16 others were arrested inside the North Carolina legislature for protesting sweeping voting restrictions proposed by the Republican-controlled state government.

I ALMOST DIDN’T go to the Moral March. I kept looking for excuses. There was all that work to be done for next week. I told my professor I’d miss Friday’s preaching class. I hoped she’d chide me and I’d feel guilty enough to stay. Instead she said, “Great, go with my blessing.” I told my tutor I’d miss tutorial. She said, “I’m so glad you’re going to the march.”

Why couldn’t I go to a normal graduate school where no one left their rooms? But instead I went to seminary, and to Union, of all places!

I said, God, I’m crazy to go. Mild laughter was the only response. I glared at my reflection in the dark window. The reflection raised her eyebrow and said, don’t be left behind now.

The little voice in the window stayed with me as I put an extra pair of thick socks in my bag. Don’t be left behind, reading books about other people’s marches and other people’s spiritual revelations and other people’s religions. This march is historic, my reflection informed me. Go and be part of history. This is your history.

This is your time.

The Editors 2-18-2014

In remembrance of Pete Seeger

Naypong/Shutterstock

To be “pro-choice” is to make decisions beyond the horizon — to act for the beloved community. Naypong/Shutterstock

“I knew from the beginning that as a woman, an older woman, in a group of ministers who are accustomed to having women largely as supporters, there was no place for me to come into a leadership role. The competition wasn’t worth it.”

These are the words Ella Baker spoke regarding her decision to leave the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, SCLC, in 1958. Baker was one of the core founders of this organization. Yet, her male colleagues only recognized her competence and expertise to a limit. The “preacher’s club” selected Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker to replace Baker at the helm. Due to this prevailing patriarchy and what she deemed a focus on “mass rallies and grand exhortations by ministers without follow-up,” Baker left the SCLC. She chose to go her own womanly way.

We make decisions every day. Life’s twenty-four-hour cycle is filled with choices. We contemplate what we will wear. We ponder breakfast selections. Will it be the bagel with cream cheese or a caramel macchiato with soy? Should I watch Mad Men, Scandal, or go to bed early? Do I call or just send a text or email? Our daily lives are replete with routine choices.

However, beyond these commonplace decisions are those personal, communal, and national selections that will have an impact on our lives years from now.

AS AN EVANGELICAL pastor of a multiethnic church in New York City, I often find myself at the intersection of lively discussions about race. These conversations almost inevitably lead to a familiar question: What does the church do now? Maybe stated another way, “How do we work toward the dream of the beloved community?” This is why I find Edward Gilbreath’s Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Epic Challenge to the Church to be a timely and necessary read.

While many books have been written on Dr. King and civil rights, Birmingham Revolution places King’s faith at the foreground of the writing. This is an important distinctive as King has often been co-opted, by conservative and liberal agendas alike. Yet history cannot deny that prayerful action, and a gospel that took seriously the social dimensions of human life, were at the very heart of King’s theology.

Birmingham Revolution hones in on the year 1963—a time when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference took the civil rights efforts into the bowels of structural racism. Brown vs. Board of Education had provided an important Supreme Court victory in 1954, but many forms of local resistance to desegregation prevailed in the South.

To compound the drama, many advocates in Alabama, both black and white, believed further progress should happen through legal means. They had a misplaced confidence that local structures would uphold federal law, despite the continued presence of the KKK and other such groups. Gilbreath explains Birmingham’s defining moment not only in confronting segregation, but also in challenging the subtler, unwittingly complicit voice of the moderate.

Gar Alperovitz 12-09-2013

IN THE LAST YEAR of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. struggled with what are best understood as existential challenges as he began to move toward an ever-more-profound and radical understanding of what would be required to deal with the nation’s domestic and international problems.

The direction he was exploring, I believe, is far more relevant to the realities we now face than many have realized—or have wanted to realize.

I first met King in 1964 at the Democratic Party’s national convention held that year in Atlantic City—the occasion of an historic challenge by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to the racially segregated and reactionary Mississippi Democratic Party. I was then a very young aide working for Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. Sen. Nelson authorized me to help out in any way I could despite President Lyndon Johnson’s effort to clamp down on the fight for representation in the interest of a “dignified” convention that would nominate him in his own right after his rise to the presidency following President Kennedy’s assassination. Johnson didn’t want a bunch of civil rights activists muddying the waters and, not incidentally, causing him problems in the conservative, race-based Democratic South.

After much back and forth, the Johnson administration offered a “compromise” proposal that the old guard be seated (provided they pledged to support him) and that two at-large representatives of the MFDP also be seated.

Bart Jansen 11-26-2013

FlyRights app image courtesy FlyRights.org

The Sikh Coalition is updating a mobile app that allows travelers to report complaints about the Transportation Security Administration from the airport.

The coalition created the FlyRights app in April 2012 because of concerns that TSA officers profiled travelers for their appearance — and Sikhs in particular because of their turbans.

The TSA insists it doesn’t profile travelers. Civil rights complaints are investigated and “immediate action” is taken if substantiated, the agency said.

The original FlyRights app, created in coordination with the TSA, allowed a traveler to submit a complaint at the same time to the coalition and to the TSA for investigation.

Omar Sacirbey 10-25-2013

An NYPD car drives through the streets of New York City. Photo via RNS/courtesy Giacomo Barbaro via Flickr

A coalition of 125 religious, civil rights, and community-based organizations sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice Thursday urging a civil rights investigation into a New York City Police Department program that spies on Muslims.

Groups from several faith traditions signed the letter including the Presbyterian Church (USA), the National Council of Jewish Women, the Hindu American Foundation, and the Sikh Coalition. Civil rights groups include the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, South Asian Americans Leading Together, and the National Network for Arab American Communities.

The NYPD program is already the target of two federal lawsuits, one filed in June by the ACLU and the City University of New York Law School’s Center for Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility, and the other filed in June 2012, by several Muslim plaintiffs represented by Muslim Advocates and the law firm Bhalla and Cho.

Julie Polter 10-02-2013
Cleats and Dignity

The civil rights struggle for African Americans happened in every sphere of life. Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights, by Samuel G. Freedman, tells of two great black coaches in the tense year of 1967. Simon & Schuster

Catching Fire

One project of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture is the Pentecostal and Charismatic Research Initiative, which funded research in more than 20 countries. PCRI resources include the informative recent report, “Moved by the Spirit: Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity in the Global South.” crcc.usc.edu/pcri

March on Washington, 1963. Photo courtesy mikek7890/flickr.com

March on Washington, 1963. Photo courtesy mikek7890/flickr.com

Looking back over five decades, the evidence is clear that everything has changed. We elected black mayors in the South and fought to end apartheid in South Africa. Nelson Mandela walked out of prison after 27 years and became president of South Africa. Segregation was outlawed and black people began to enjoy better lives.

But new challenges, including HIV/AIDS, drugs and gun violence, undermine our progress. We’ve come a long, long way, but we still have a long, long way to go. For too many young people, the “movement” is distant history. But we see a new birth of energy around the criminal justice system and voting rights. We take great pride in the fact that black youth overwhelmingly helped elect the first black president. We have come to the end of our tolerance of the killing and demonization of young black men — it is the most pernicious holdover from an ugly past.

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Rev. Fred Shuttleworth; Rev. Ralph Abernathy. Phot

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Rev. Fred Shuttleworth; Rev. Ralph Abernathy. Photo courtesy RNS.

It may be the most famous speech of the 20th century.

Millions of American schoolchildren who never experienced Jim Crow or whites-only water fountains know the phrase “I have a dream.”

And many American adults can recite from memory certain phrases: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s use of the prophet Amos’ vision of justice rolling down “like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” or the line about children being judged not by “the color of their skin but the content of their character.”

To many in this country, “I have a dream” has a place of honor next to the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address. It celebrates the lofty ideals of freedom.

But scholars say it would be a mistake to celebrate the speech without also acknowledging its profound critique of American values.

 
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.

Martin Witchger 6-14-2013

A statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. stands on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Photo via Brandon Bourdages/shutterstock.com

If there was ever a fear that the church is splintered, apathetic or dull, the passion and unity on display at the “Why We Can’t Wait” May Revival on Pentecost Sunday earlier this month proved a direct contradiction to that assertion. 

The second of five events of Washington DC’s Church-Wide Response to the New Jim Crow brought a diverse group of 50 faithful people to Capitol Hill’s Lutheran Church of the Reformation for an afternoon of song, prayer, worship, education on nonviolence and mass incarceration, and call-to-action to work and pray for a better church and a better world.

David Anderson 6-06-2013
RNS file photo

Will Campbell died Monday at the age of 88.

The Rev. Will D. Campbell, a Baptist minister and early white civil rights activist, as well as best-selling writer and folksy raconteur, died Monday in Nashville, Tenn. He was 88.

With a fiercely independent streak and sometimes prickly personality, Campbell used his powerful way with words to explore American racism, especially the contradiction inherent in Christian support for segregation across the South.

And he had his own contradictions, as well. A Southern Baptist who drank moonshine with the Catholic nuns he counted as his friends, Campbell was an equal-opportunity critic, castigating liberals as well as conservatives in his writing and preaching and storytelling.

Will D. Campbell's book, 'Brother to a Dragonfly'

Will D. Campbell's book, 'Brother to a Dragonfly'

[Will Campbell] confused his critics – first the Right and then the Left – by insisting that his soul did not belong to any team – racial, political, religious, cultural. It belonged to the Kingdom of God. There was only one team, and that was the family of ALL God’s children everywhere. 

Compassion came first in his hierarchy of values. Compassion led him to campaign for justice in the Civil Rights Movement, and compassion led him to sip whiskey with the cross-burners in the rocking chairs on their front porches. His was a ministry of reconciliation, a living, idiosyncratic expression a bold declaration of the biblical Gospel that God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s own self.

Lisa Sharon Harper 6-05-2013

From left, Lisa Sharon Harper, Bernice King, Virgil Wood, and Sharon Watkins discuss faith, race, and the future of the church.

BERNICE KING watched as, one by one, the heads of denominations from across the nation bent down to sign the Christian Churches Together in the U.S.A. “Response to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail.’” Transfixed, King—Martin King’s daughter—sat in the first row of a church one block from Kelly Ingram Park, where 50 years before children had run scared, ravaged by German shepherds and fire hoses.

As they signed, the presidents of CCT’s five church “families” stepped to the podium. Each read his or her church family’s confession of complicity with the demons of racism and injustice during and since the civil rights era.

Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. sat behind bars in the Birmingham city jail and responded to criticism from eight local white clergy’s “Call for Unity” against outside agitators. King penned prophetic words in the margins of the newspaper that carried the white clergy’s call for “law and order and common sense.”

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” King explained. He recounted the failed attempts to negotiate with city officials hell-bent on living a “monologue rather than dialogue.” He clarified: “The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

Gareth Higgins 5-11-2013

From "God Loves Uganda"

I’VE WINCED often at the portrayal of religion in recent documentaries—partly out of embarrassed identification with some of the apparently crazy things I’ve witnessed in real life, and partly because some documentarians seem to think that there’s nothing to religion other than those crazy things. God Loves Uganda, a new documentary about the role played by U.S. missionaries in nurturing that country’s homophobic culture and legislation, manages to avoid the mistake of confusing bad religion with all religion.

The concern for the Ugandan people manifested by fundamentalist charismatic Christians is suggested to be far less than the sum of its parts as they become participants in the nurturing of a social structure that aims to eradicate gay people. But the film avoids easy stereotyping of Christian mission work, particularly in the person of Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, a smiling radical in the mold of Desmond Tutu. His is a face of Ugandan Christianity that is open, generous, alive, courageous, and kind—a prophetic African voice for human rights.

Wendell Berry recently suggested that the expression of anti-LGBTQ sentiment may evoke a kind of subconscious reaction in the proponent akin to autoerotic pleasure. Delighting in the pain of others is a kind of sadism rooted in the insecurities harbored by the person who has decided it’s their job to be the moral police, despite how kind they may think they are being. The fear stirred by psuedo-Dominionist movements may have given the U.S. missionaries in God Loves Uganda a sincere desire to change the world. But their lack of self-reflection leads them to export some of the worst of American cultural imperialism: prejudice, the conflation of sentimentality and cultural ignorance with love, the denial of the gift that the other has for us.

Kim Lawton 5-02-2013
Photo courtesy Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

Child marchers, sprayed with fire hoses in May 1963. Photo courtesy Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — In May 1963, thousands of Birmingham school children faced police dogs, fire hoses, and possible arrest to demonstrate against segregation. Now, 50 years later, those who were part of what became known as the “Children’s March” say they don’t want their story to be forgotten.

“We were doing this not just for ourselves but for some higher purpose,” said one of the young marchers, Freeman Hrabowski III. “It focused on civil rights for all Americans.”

Hrabowski is now president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He was 12 when he marched in Birmingham and was arrested for parading without a permit. He and hundreds of other children were held in custody for five days before being released.

Experts say the children’s crusade helped galvanize the civil rights struggle at a time when efforts were flagging.

“That was really the tipping point in a tipping year,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch, who has written a series of books about the civil rights movement, told the PBS program “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.”

Watch Birmingham and the Children’s March on PBS. See more from Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Eric Martin 4-04-2013
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. 

Vincent Harding 3-14-2013

AT TIMES IT SEEMS VERY HARD to realize that half a century has passed since my late wife, Rosemarie, and I were in Birmingham, Ala., living out a part of our years of service as representatives of the Mennonite churches of America to the Southern freedom movement—that historic black-led struggle for the expansion of democracy in America (inadequately labeled "the civil rights movement").

It was in the midst of those powerful days, in the late winter and early springtime of 1963, when our extraordinary people's movement was spreading to dozens of communities across the South, with some important reverberations in the North, and across the world as well. Usually initiated by courageous home-grown black leaders such as Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham and Victoria Gray of Palmers Crossing, Miss., the determined local groups often called upon national or South-wide organizations to help them in their campaigns.

Late in 1961, Shuttlesworth, who was part of the King-led Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), asked Martin Luther King Jr. and SCLC to come help the Birmingham movement. It faced a level of continuing white terrorism that led the black community to call their city "Bombingham," referring, of course, to the deadly violence they encountered whenever they attempted to challenge the white segregationist powers who were determined to keep black people in a submissive, separate, and dominated role.

When King and SCLC decided to respond to Shuttlesworth and move onto the Birmingham scene, Rosemarie and I were already friends and co-workers with Martin and Coretta, and King asked us to come participate in the struggle for the transformation of Birmingham. So we were present and in the line of marchers when King, his co-worker Ralph Abernathy, and others were arrested in early April 1963.