It is a well-known fact that religion has shaped the history of humanity ever since its inception. The civil rights movement in the U.S. was no different and used the ideologies and structures of religious organizations to bring about change and mobilize the black community into action.
Christian Churches, and somewhat later, Nation of Islam institutions provided the preliminary structures in the black community which activists in the civil rights movement used to organize black communities. Because of this, organizations such as the SCLC were able to convert Christian congregations across America into Civil Rights Activists. The Nation of Islam did the same thing with it’s followers, only instead of a non-violent ideology being purveyed, element of Black Nationalism and Black power were presented to its followers.
Religion provided more than just people, though, it provided a new ideological lens to view the movement through. Theologians such as Martin Luther King and James Cone used the bible to explain the struggles of blacks in the U.S. In his book The God of the Oppressed, Cone describes the Christian/Jewish God as always being involved in a political or social struggle on the side of the oppressed people (Cone, 63). He relates the civil rights movement to the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. This relationship between God and the oppressed gave African Americans hope. They saw themselves as the Jews, with God on their sides, and saw whites as the evil Egyptians, who would one day be punished. By incorporating religion into the struggle Martin Luther King also was able to instill hope with speeches such as his the ‘Mountain Top’ or ‘I have a dream’ speech.
Believing that you have God backing you in your struggles gives a people the strength to take a stance. Because it gives this since of hope and entitlement Religion has allowed people to do things they might not have done otherwise and helped society by leaps and bounds. Conversely religion has also given people justification for some of the worst atrocities in our history.
Whites supporting slavery and later segregation used the bible as their justification for white supremacy in the south. Genocides and wars have all been validated using religion. The Nazis used religion to rationalize their genocide of the Jews. Today, the Islamic sects the Sunnis and Shiites continue to fight over religious differences in the Middle East. So the real question is how can something that has been so productive to society in some instances also be so detrimental?
- Cone, James H. God of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury, 1975. Print.