Faith in Black Power: Reflections on Teaching the Civil Rights Movement in My Place

What happens when you rearrange a civil rights movement class to prioritize the North? The long civil rights movement framework, which has greatly influenced my own writing, explodes the traditional southern-focused, 1954-1965, King-based narrative that has been so dominant in the general American psyche and helps students to see that race has not been just a southern problem (although there are things unique to the South), that Dr. King was not the only leader, that women’s activism and questions of gender are important, and that the movement was not just about integration.  The long movement framework, as Jacqueline Dowd Hall conceived it in 2005, does not adequately account for religion, but there are some great books that do explore religion in the classical and long movements (I have used Charles Marsh's God's Long Summer and Patrick Jones's The Selma of the North in my classroom).

Place matters, and I’m becoming more convinced that institutions of higher education - education which should shape people, not just minds - have a responsibility to help students learn to live well in a place, so they can work for the common good (which includes people and the environment, see Jack Baker and Jeffrey Bilbro on Wendell Berry and Higher Education).  This semester, I rearranged my civil rights movement general education class to prioritize race and movement activism in the North, and in Chicago and Wheaton (where I teach), specifically. 
I did so to help ground my students, quite literally, with the hope that doing so would help them see their current context more clearly.  We dug into the Wheaton College archives to construct a story of its racial history and relationship to the civil rights movement, and we read primary and secondary sources on the North in the course’s third unit, which led many students to write their midterm primary source research paper on questions grounded in the North.  A key question for our focus on the north was how religion – in this case evangelicalism (with Wheaton College) and Catholicism (using chapters from my forthcoming book, One in Christ: Catholics and the Quest for Interracial Justice in Chicago, shameless plug) – both reinforced and tore down racial hierarchies.

Our last major unit was on Black Power, but I failed to offer my students opportunities to really dig into how religion intersected with Black Nationalism in the movement.  Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam offered one entry point.  Marsh’s discussion of Black Power in his chapter on key SNCC leader Cleveland Sellers offered another.  Marsh argues that SNCC’s expulsion of white members in 1967 made SNCC the closed society writ small, a parallel to the white Mississippi religious culture that turned its back on the other, and a far cry from the beloved community that Fannie Lou Hamer helped foster in Mississippi (and that Marsh celebrates).  In keeping with my local theme, we explored the Chicago Police Department’s murder of Fred Hampton, fostered by the FBI’s COINTELPRO, and analyzed the Eyes on the Prize “Nation of Law?” episode, which is excellent but, like the series as a whole, lacks sustained attention to religious questions.  The episode shows an interview of Father George Clements (for the full interview transcript, go here) who talks about holding a mass for Hampton after his murder.  It also shows Hampton speaking in a church to an interracial group (you can see footage of Hampton in the church in the preview for The Murder of Fred Hampton).  But Clements as a Catholic is not a question the film digs into.

Overall, the iterations of Black Power I provided for my students to explore were either not religious (which for many activists was not), or if they were religious, they were anti- Christianity (as with NOI and SNCC’s black power phase).

And yet, I know that is not the case.  There is a powerful tradition of Christian faith, both Protestant and Catholic, in Black Power movements, whose adherents saw their efforts for black advancement as part and parcel with their Christian faith.  My own research on Catholic interracialism is bookended by black Catholic nationalism.  

I want to share some resources I'll be drawing on next time I teach this class to improve our study of the intersections between black nationalism and Christianity: Kerry Pimblott’s Faith in Black Power: Religion, Race, and Resistance in Cairo, Illinois and Matt Cressler’s Authentically Black and Truly Catholic: The Rise of Black Catholicism in the Great Migration.

Here’s the University Press of Kentucky’s summary of Pimblott’s Faith in Black Power:

In this vital reassessment of the impact of religion on the black power movement,Kerry Pimblott presents a nuanced discussion of the ways in which black churches supported and shaped the United Front. She deftly challenges conventional narratives of the de-Christianization of the movement, revealing that Cairoites embraced both old-time religion and revolutionary thought. Not only did the faithful fund the mass direct-action strategies of the United Front, but activists also engaged the literature on black theology, invited theologians to speak at their rallies, and sent potential leaders to train at seminaries. Pimblott also investigates the impact of female leaders on the organization and their influence on young activists, offering new perspectives on the hypermasculine image of black power.

And here’s New York University Press’s summary of Cressler’s Authentically Black and Truly Catholic:

The sweep of the Great Migration brought many Black migrants face-to-face with white missionaries for the first time and transformed the religious landscape of the urban North. The hopes migrants had for their new home met with the desires of missionaries to convert entire neighborhoods. Missionaries and migrants forged fraught relationships with one another and tens of thousands of Black men and women became Catholic in the middle decades of the twentieth century as a result. These Black Catholic converts saved failing parishes by embracing relationships and ritual life that distinguished them from the evangelical churches proliferating around them. They praised the “quiet dignity” of the Latin Mass, while distancing themselves from the gospel choirs, altar calls, and shouts of “amen!” increasingly common in Black evangelical churches. 

Their unique rituals and relationships came under intense scrutiny in the late 1960s, when a growing group of Black Catholic activists sparked a revolution in U.S. Catholicism. Inspired by both Black Power and Vatican II, they fought for the self-determination of Black parishes and the right to identify as both Black and Catholic. Faced with strong opposition from fellow Black Catholics, activists became missionaries of a sort as they sought to convert their coreligionists to a distinctively Black Catholicism. This book brings to light the complexities of these debates in what became one of the most significant Black Catholic communities in the country, changing the way we view the history of American Catholicism

Both books not only will complicate the relationship of religion and black power, but will also help me teach my students in Illinois, serving the dual purposes of helping them to learn about the place they live and exploring the myriad ways religion shaped race and civil rights activism – including Black Power, and vice versa.


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