Religion’s Role in the Civil Rights Movement

In high school social studies classes, when we were taught the Civil Rights Movement, it was all about social concerns and politics. They were given as reasons, means, and ends. But as Chappell pointed out, the role religion played cannot be ignored. “The words of many participants suggest that it was, for them, primarily a religious event, whose social and political aspects were, in their minds, secondary or incidental” (Chappell, 87).

Chappell also goes into some detail about several important religious (and even non-religious) leaders. Sernett does the same, including four religious leaders besides the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I think that when students are taught about the Civil Rights Movement, the dialogue is entirely of the Rev. Dr. King, Malcolm X, and boycotts, marches, and sit-ins. I think that Chappell’s goal in his chapter was to show that there were important things behind the scenes. Religion, spirituality, and how people connected to their religious and movement leaders. The Sernett readings were attempting to do the same, to show that there were so many elements that came together to become stronger, from religious conventions to powerful music.

The idea that the Civil Rights Movement was also a revival has an important implication — that it changed not only the United States politically through court cases and laws, but also spiritually. The goal became not “to bring politics into our morality but to bring morality into our politics” (Chappell, 90). The word choices of righteousness, truth, and miracle echo the ideas of changing not only how the country was doing things on the surface but  how the actual people were beginning to see things underneath — seeing past skin color. Billy Graham even started a dialogue on the color of Christ, an argument of seeing Jesus Christ in a new way, one that made it so Christianity truly could become a religion for anyone who wanted it and saw in it, hope.  

The Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, from the Library of Congress



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