For ye are all children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:26
When slavery ended in the United States in 1865, black Americans received their freedom, but they did not receive equal rights. Racial segregation and discrimination were rife. The official “separate but equal” policy did not even achieve similar facilities; it certainly did not provide an atmosphere of unity among all people.
The American Civil Rights Movement was largely a Christian movement. While not all Christians agreed on the equality of blacks, enough became involved to encourage sweeping social reform.
Some major denominations took a bold stand in support of racial equality. The Presbyterian Church of the United States issued statements supporting civil rights for blacks. Likewise, the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ supported civil rights and ending segregation. The support of these denominations encouraged people, both black and white, to take a stand for equality.
In 1954, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) became pastor of the Dexter Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. The following year he was elected head of the Montgomery Improvement Association, an organization created to oversee the Montgomery bus boycott in the wake of the arrest of Rosa Parks.
King became a key figure and the face of the Civil Rights Movement. He admired Gandhi’s (1869–1948) effort in India and insisted that his movement follow the model of nonviolent protest. A difficult standard to maintain, this approach offered the black community moral high ground when they were physically attacked by police and civilians alike.
In 1957, Martin Luther King Jr. helped launch the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Many other black clergy joined with him in this effort, such as Andrew Young, Fred Shuttlesworth, Wyatt Walker, Joseph Lowery, and Jesse Jackson. Founded as a Christian organization, the SCLC existed to end segregation.
As the SCLC’s first president, Martin Luther King Jr. repeatedly spoke about nonviolent efforts. He pushed Christians of all races to end discrimination and racism. According to King, “The gospel is a two-way road. On the one hand, it seeks to change the souls of men, and thereby unite them with God; on the other hand, it seeks to change the environmental conditions of men, so the soul will have a chance after it is changed.”1 He saw the Civil Rights Movement as nothing more than fulfilling the work of that second hand.
Another great civil rights leader, writer, and teacher was Maya Angelou (1928–2014). She said, “If God loves me. . .what is it I can’t do?”2 Sexually abused at a young age, Maya turned to literature and writing as a way of escaping the pain. In her later years, she was the coordinator of the SCLC, working with Malcolm X (1925–1965), Martin Luther King Jr., King’s wife, Coretta (1927–2006), and Nelson Mandela (1918–2013).
Footnotes: 1 “The Words and Images of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X – Part 5 of 7 | UNMC.” University of Nebraska Medical Center. 17 Jan. 2002. Web. 11 July 2015.
2 Marie, Brownie. “Maya Angelou on Christian Faith: ‘If God Loves Me, What Is It I Can’t Do?’” Christianity Today. Christian Media Corporation, 29 May 2014. Web. 11 July 2015.
This blog post has been adapted from my new book How Jesus Changed the World. You can learn more about it here.