Martin Luther King Jr.’s activism was born of and integral to the Black church in America, but younger generations of Americans of all races are leaving their churches for a more secular life.
So what does a largely secular generation of young Black Americans mean for the anti-racist movement? Do Black churches still play the same crucial role in activism that they once did? And if not, where is the epicenter of civic action in the Black community now, and who is leading the way if not the pulpit of Black churches?
“Those questions” said Cheryl Sanders, professor of Christian ethics at Howard University, “assume an ‘I have a dream’ sanitized version of the church in civil rights history. So many people think back to the old days of protests and marches with ministers peacefully leading the way and think that was it. That was only part of it.” If you know the rest of the story, she said, you understand how it’s not such a big leap for anti-racist activism to go secular — a lot of it, she added, was already there.
Sanders, who is also senior pastor at the Third Street Church of God in Washington, D.C., spoke to Grid about why the church’s role in the civil rights movement wasn’t as rosy and inclusive as history makes it out to be, how secular activism has been part of the movement since the beginning and what it means to be an activist.
The idea of anti-racist movements outside the Black church is not new
The Black church, Sanders said, became a place of anti-racism organizing because it was a place where Black Americans could gather to discuss social and political issues and find ways to push back against the racism that still meets Black Americans the moment they leave the front door of the church.
King’s famous quote, “11 o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hour, in Christian America,” still resonates, said Sanders. And it’s never been about theological differences — even today, white conservative churches and many Black churches share the same theologies, just different politics.
But church wasn’t the answer for every person who wanted to be a part of the civil rights movement. There have always been people who wanted to work against racism but could either not find places of leadership in Black churches or the community they were looking for, Sanders said. So they went outside the church.
“There’s been a historical intentionality in some of our denominations to keep women in the congregation out of the pulpit,” said Sanders. “That wasn’t a problem for Martin Luther King as a Baptist preacher or many of the other civil rights leaders. It was a very masculine movement with this tension between, OK, we need women to do the work. But we need the men to be up front.”
The result: Women found ways to be active leaders in the community apart from the church — very often creating their own organizations.
“Even before the civil rights movement, Black women like Mary McLeod Bethune and Nannie Helen Burroughs organized themselves ecumenically in the community to do the same work,” Sanders said. “They didn’t leave the church; they just organized outside of the church — because it was too complicated to have to work with these black men, it was too much work. Angela Davis was a leader in the Black Power movement who organized and operated outside of the church.”
Sanders added that these women, by working outside the church, drew attention to the question, “How can you promote equality in the society when you don’t practice it in your own community?”
Today, you see that with the Black Lives Matter movement as well, she added. It was started by women looking for a way to change the system.
Sanders also emphasized that the civil rights movement has never just been a Black movement. There have always been white people involved, and they rarely had any connection to Black churches. They may have been marching alongside Black ministers and protestors, she said, but their work for civil rights was done apart from Black churches. And there are white congregations who have posted Black Lives Matter signs in their front yards.
Not all Black churches were involved in — or agreed with — the civil rights movement
Another common misconception, Sanders said, is that all Black churches were supportive of the civil rights movement; that just wasn’t true. After King was assassinated and began to be viewed as a martyr for the cause of justice, the narrative shifted so that many who opposed him while he was alive, honored his legacy of protest and struggle after he died.
“A lot of people were marching with Dr. King, but a whole lot of people were sitting at home saying, ‘Oh no, we’re not going along with that. He had major pushback; even his own denomination split over whether to support the civil rights agenda,” she added.
Today, with the very secular Black Lives Matter movement, you see activists hold Black churches accountable that say they want in on that movement, Sanders said, citing the protests following Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, Missouri.
“You have all these well-known Black ministers, Black theologians — people who didn’t know Michael Brown personally — who physically went to Ferguson after the death of Michael Brown. The funeral becomes this political rally, right? And you have people in streets questioning them, saying, ‘You can’t just show up and be the church unless you also have a commitment to stay engaged with the people,’” she said.
The Black Lives Matter activists are in a kind of standoff between the old guard of Black ministers, said Sanders. But that’s not necessarily about the younger generation not going to church.
“It is more like an intergenerational disagreement between those who want to revive the past prominence of the Black church and Black preachers as the vanguard of the civil rights movement,” said Sanders, “versus the present generation of activists who do not share a high regard for that history and legacy and who are ready to embrace a different vision of social change.”
It’s important to note, Sanders said, that it’s also not an either/or situation.
“I don’t know how many Black young people who would characterize their dilemma as either I’m going to follow Black Lives Matter, or I’m going to join the Black church. I don’t think that’s a menu for them,” she said.
And this idea of accountability is not new, said Sanders, citing the day the Supreme Court ruled on overturning bus segregation laws dropped in 1955.
“This whole gang of Black pastors got on the bus, and they’re sitting on the bus for the photo-op. But you could tell some of them looked like they had never been on a bus. That was for domestic workers, poor people. So there was a whole class issue there, too, that got into who should be speaking for and representing whom.”
Lower attendance in Black churches doesn’t necessarily mean less activism
Bottom line, said Sanders: There are people in congregations who remain committed to social justice engagement. But there’s also a history of people working outside the church to get civil rights legislation passed. It’s just the way they are doing it that has changed.
You have social media now, said Sanders, and an entirely new way of community engagement and activism apart from the church. That means, she added, we need to rethink what we say when we ask how many people are engaged.
“If it’s a matter of counting people in the streets, then the ’60s and the 2020s don’t compare when we’re talking about protesting. But we can no longer measure how engaged young people are that way. Those who would have been in the streets protesting in the ’60s are expressing themselves largely online from their home now.”
It’s also a different time, she said. There are more Black people holding political office, in higher education, in think tanks. That’s changing how people work for civil rights. Some of it can be done from within the system.
That said, she added, racism has changed with the times too.
“It’s important for us to keep the King legacy alive, but we have to update our methodology for how we address the issues,” she said. “Carrying a sign, marching shoulder to shoulder singing, ‘We shall overcome,’ is not necessarily the most effective way to address the issues anymore.”
Thanks to Brett Zach for copy editing this article.