For this essay I am going to mainly concentrate on the role and significance of the Church and Youth up until around 1965 when the civil rights movement was largely associated with non-violence. Although the Church and Youth still played prominent roles after this period when the movement became in many sections more divided and militant, and although it would be very useful for this question to study this later period, on such a broad issue as civil rights it will be more valuable to concentrate on a stronger and detailed analysis of the earlier of these two phases rather than a thinner and weaker examination of both.
Firstly it is important to recognise the role religion and the Church played in the upbringing and early lives of many future civil rights leaders, in particular those attached to non-violence. For example, Martin Luther King throughout his education was exposed to influences that related Christian theology to the struggles of oppressed people and King also often read and heard the sermons of white protestant ministers who preached against racism. 1 Benjamin E. Mays, leader in the national community of racially liberal clergymen has frequently been described as being especially important in shaping King’s theological development.
The influence of the Church and religion was also influential in Bayard Rustin’s involvement in civil rights, a fact confirmed by Rustin himself, “My activism did not spring from being black, it is rooted fundamentally in my Quaker upbringing”3. The Church also proved crucial in Fred Shuttleswoth’s later involvement with civil rights as in June 1943 Shuttlesworth became a Baptist by joining the Corinthian Baptist Church, and within ten years this would bring him to beginning a pastorate of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
This was especially significant, given the future civil rights activities of Shuttlesworth in Birmingham; however I will discuss this later. Finally, a similar pattern follows with Ralph Abernathy as it was after becoming pastor in 1952 of the First Baptist Church in Montgomery that Abernathy’s involvement with civil rights would begin as he would meet and become very close friends with Martin Luther King. So therefore the role of the Church in influencing the early lives of these and other civil rights leaders was very significant as they would all go on to play notable roles in the civil rights movement, as I will examine.
The most direct connection of these four men was the crucial role they all played in the planning and creation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957. The influence of the Church can be clearly seen by the personnel in the organisation as King became president, Abernathy secretary-treasurer, and two Reverends, A. L. Davis and Samuel Williams were appointed as vice presidents. The SCLC was an organisation of black churches and ministers that aimed to challenge racial segregation, and gain full citizenship rights for blacks.
Its philosophy revolved around the idea of non-violent direct action and Christian faith, and in fact even the motto of the SCLC, ‘To Redeem the Soul of America’ reflected just how deep a role the Church played within the organisation. So therefore it is clear that the black Church played an immense role within the SCLC, especially at its outset, where Rustin described it as “a source of strength”. 4 The importance of the SCLC and the Church can be seen clearly in the role they played in many of the main civil rights campaigns and events that led to change.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott is one such example. Although the campaign ended in December 1956 before the SCLC was formed, the Church influence in the boycott is as Lang pronounces, unmistakable. King and Abernathy were chosen as president and vice president respectively of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), the organisation that directed the year long boycott of the Montgomery Bus Company. Other Church ministers such as Rustin, Shuttlesworth, and Roy Bennett were also heavily involved in organising the boycott.
The significance of the Church’s involvement is illustrated by the Supreme Court decision which ruled in favour of the MIA and against segregated seating practices in Montgomery’s buses. In fact King expands this for the whole civil rights movement and says the success in Montgomery was crucial in inspiring blacks “with a new determination to struggle and sacrifice until first class citizenship becomes a reality”. There are many other significant civil rights campaigns that the Church played a very prominent part in, not all of which I can discuss, and it is now that I will bring the role of the Youth into this analysis.
The Sit-in movement is one such example, and the role of the Youth can be seen straight away by the fact that many scholars such as Lang and Blumberg refer to it as the ‘student sit-in movement’. The movement began on February 2nd 1960 in a Woolworth’s store in Greensboro when four young students staged a sit-in after being refused service at a white’s only lunch counter. Soon the tactic spread across the South, Southwest, and Midwest and by August 1961, over 70,000 had participated in over a hundred cities, with many of these students. In fact the extent of the role played by youngsters in the sit-in movement can be illustrated by interviews with a random sample of Southern Negro College students in 1961 which concluded that during the first year of the protests almost a quarter (24 per cent) of the Negro students in the South took some part in the sit-ins. 6 Although there is always the possibility of exaggeration on some students claims, nevertheless this doesn’t detract from the massive role played by the Youth.
It is also important to recognise the role the Church played in the sit-in movement, and a number of comparisons can be made here. Peter Lang states the importance of the SCLC, as progress made before 1960 enabled the sit-in youth to enjoy some legal protections for their protests. 7 Martin Luther King’s influence was also crucial as his theory of non-violence was mostly carried through by the protesters despite often being on the receiving end of provocation and violence. As Lang says, “Certainly the non-violent approach was the model most influential upon the sit-ins”.
In fact the SCLC can even be credited with the first serious effort to organise the sit-in students as a conference at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, between April 16-18, organised by Ella Baker, gathered together around 200 people, mostly students, thus providing the setting and decisive step for the youth movement to initiate. Even during the sit-ins, a number of Church leaders were involved, for example Shuttlesworth who was arrested in March 1960 for assisting students in Birmingham. Therefore, it is clear that both the Church and Youth played important roles in the Student sit-in movement.
The significance of the Church and Youth in the sit-ins was two-fold. First of all the activities directly resulted in more successes in the drive for desegregation. By September 1961, the Southern Regional Council reported that at least one establishment had desegregated its eating facilities in each of the 76 cities in the Old South. 8 Although much of the Deep South continued its refusal to change, the sit-ins had the effect on many cities that integration of public accommodation was inevitable.
As the mayor of Macon, Georgia said in 1962, “Even Robert E. Lee had to surrender, didn’t he? 9 The sit-ins were also significant in bringing about a more unified, organised and region-wide civil rights movement, from what had often previously been scattered and sporadic protests. The most noteworthy example with regards to this was the setting up of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in October 1960 after a conference held by students from the sit-ins, an organisation that also adopted the Gandhian theory of non-violent direct action and that would play an important part in the civil rights movement in the coming years, often working together with King’s SCLC.
Another example where both the Church and Youth played an important role in advancing civil rights was during and just after the Birmingham campaign in the spring of 1963. This was basically a series of anti-segregation marches led by King’s SCLC and Shuttlesworth’s ACMHR (Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights) in Birmingham, Alabama. The Church was hugely involved in the campaign, in particular Shuttlesworth and King who both respectively led the first and second mass marches in the city.
The SCLC played a particularly important role in getting Birmingham blacks involved by holding workshops run by non-violent activists such as James Bevel and Andrew Young, in the months prior to the demonstrations. The Youth also played a crucial role in Birmingham, as small children, some as young as six, were used in the third wave of marches, with hundreds filling the streets of downtown Birmingham. 10 Again a direct comparison can be made here of the role of the Church and Youth, as it was SCLC staff such as Bevel, Young, and Dorothy Cotton who enlisted many of the young demonstrators from schools and colleges.
The role of the Youth in Birmingham proved to be of massive significance, as on May 2nd Birmingham police chief Eugene Connor ordered dogs and hoses to be used on the marchers, many of these young children, thus producing a shocking spectacle viewed throughout America. In fact some have attributed the use of children in Birmingham as the main influence on Kennedy beginning the push for civil rights legislation and just two days after watching the events on television he dispatched Assistant Attorney Burke Marshall to Birmingham to negotiate, leading to the Birmingham Truce Agreement on May 10th and much desegregation throughout the city11.
The Church was of course just as significant in bringing this about. Andrew Manis describes the importance of Fred Shuttlesworth by pointing out, “Put very bluntly, without Fred Shuttlesworth the 1963 Birmingham protests could not have happened, and without these demonstrations Congress would have ended racial segregation in public accommodations later than it did”. 12 So Birmingham is another example of just how important Youth and Church related groups and people were to the civil rights movement.
The August 1963 March on Washington had a number of similarities to Birmingham. Again the Church, in particular King and Rustin played a major role in organising a massive protest of over 200,000 people in Washington D. C demanding jobs and civil rights, culminating in King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech on the 28th August. The extent of the role played by the Church is illustrated by Findlay who estimates 40,000 church people as having participated13 in the march to the Lincoln Memorial.
The significance of the March on Washington was similar to that of Birmingham in that the demonstrations added to the political momentum that would result in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In fact Church leaders were among those who met with President Kennedy immediately after the conclusion of the march and lobbied congressmen before returning to their homes. 14 Therefore these actions all helped in pushing for civil rights legislation. One of the most important successes of the civil rights movement in America was indeed the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
It was hugely significant for advancing the rights of black Americans by banning discrimination in virtually all public facilities, and guaranteeing basic constitutional rights such as fair employment practices. Again the Youth, and the Church in particular played an extremely important role in bringing about this legislation. As explained earlier, events in Birmingham and Washington were important in influencing Kennedy and the White House, and in this context the same can be said of most of the civil rights campaigns launched up until this time.
However the Church played a particularly important role in the build up to Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2nd. For over a year the Church had played an exhaustive role in pushing for the bill, exerting a massive amount of political pressure to try and gain support in Congress. To give just one example, on April 29, 1964, Findlay describes activities at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation near the Capitol, where the National Council of Churches initiated daily worship services that would not end until “a strong and just civil rights bill was passed”15.
The fact that these services lasted for six weeks presided over by 125 Protestant and Orthodox Church leaders invited to Washington to lead the daily demonstrations, shows the extent of the pressure the Church was putting on the government to pass the civil rights bill. The Churches role in bringing about civil rights legislation is well summed up again by Findlay who says, “By the late spring of 1964, the churches had exerted their influence at almost every level of the political process”. 16
However it has also been argued that the Church and Youth may not have been as important as some believe not only in getting the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed but in the whole civil rights movement. For example, Findlay speaks of the immense importance of the labour groups during the struggle, quoting Clarence Mitchell, an NAACP lobbyist in Washington who said, “The labour groups and a man like Andrew Biemiller (the AFL-CIO lobbyist) are just indispensable. If we had… a leading archbishop or the head of the National Council of Churches but had not Andy Biemiller, I don’t think we could have won”17.
Therefore Mitchell’s comments contain a direct reference of the possible inferior importance of the Church to that of the labour unions. Others have placed the activities of the NAACP as more significant than that of the more Church and Youth related organisations of the SCLC and SNCC. Clarence Mitchell gives an example of the March on Washington on August 28th 1963, a success that was mainly down to a little noticed NAACP Legislative Strategy Conference on Civil Rights two weeks earlier that had ensured the march would emphasize the legislative struggle and not simply jobs and freedom as previously had been planned.
However, despite this argument it is important to point out that the NAACP did still have an important connection with the Church and the Youth, and the NAACP Youth Councils for example, made a number of important contributions with successful protests in many cities and states, so to alienate the NAACP from the other two would be a big mistake. Nevertheless, many have even gone further and actually criticised the Church’s lack of involvement in the civil rights movement.
Findlay explains the inactivity of many conservative church people 18 and in fact as late as August 1969, then SCLC president Ralph Abernathy was criticising the civil rights work of the Church, which had by then moved mainly to tacking black poverty. “Are we not much like the rich young ruler when we admit to having gathered our stores in huge ecclesiastical barns only to find that this day the soul of our denomination is required of us”.
The criticism of the Church has even extended as far as its main figurehead King and some have argued, especially those who formed the militant side of the movement that the romanticism associated with his assassination has led to a distorted view of King’s real role and significance in the civil rights movement. To give one example, Malcolm X repeatedly expressed the view that what had forced the JFK administration to intervene in Birmingham were not King’s non-violent demonstrations but when inter-racial violence had erupted in May. So the question arises as to whether King often took a lot of credit for successes that he did not deserve.
The other serious piece of civil rights legislation in this period was in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act, signed into law by President Johnson on August 6. The act was extremely significant for black Americans as it suspended (and later banned) the use of literacy tests and other voter qualification tests that often had been used to prevent blacks from registering to vote19. Again the Church and Youth played important roles in bringing about these changes, through their involvement in the Selma Campaign, a series of marches and speeches designed to put pressure on the government.
For example, on February 2nd, Abernathy and King led 265 marchers from Brown’s Chapel to the courthouse to protest against black voter registration, leading to all of them being arrested, and thus a spectacle highlighted throughout the world through press coverage. The Church and the Youth were also heavily involved in the most famous of the marches during the Selma Campaign, the Montgomery March in which more than 3000 people, including around 300 marchers who completed the whole journey, set out from Selma, to Montgomery, where Martin Luther King was to address a rally of more than 20,000 people.
Therefore this created even more support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As Lang says, “there is no denying that Selma, and particularly the march to Montgomery, had a decisive impact… and facilitated the passage of the Voting Rights Act”. 20 In fact the significance of the protesters actions can be seen by the description of the Selma campaign by King’s biographer Stephen Oates as both King’s and the civil rights movement’s “finest hour”. In fact the Church and Youth already had a reputation for advancing black American voter egistration. For example, in 1961 the SCLC launched the Citizenship Education Program which equipped many black Americans for citizenship, starting with reading and writing in order to become registered to vote21.
The SCLC, along with the SNCC also had a big input in the founding of the Voter Education Project the following year, sponsoring funds to help educate and give transportation so blacks could vote. The significance of these two schemes was that by the time of the 1964 elections, black voters had increased from 1. million in 1960 to 1. 9 million. 22 A final example of the role, significance and importance of the Church to the civil rights movement can be seen by the fact that it was often the target for anti-civil rights activists. The most serious example was on September 15th 1963 when four young black girls were killed by a group of white men in a moving car who threw dynamite into the Birmingham Sixteenth Street Baptist Church during a Sunday school session. Also, by 1964 Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama had been bombed three times.
In this context the number of serious violent attacks Church leaders had to endure also shows the role and significance of the Church. To give just two examples, Martin Luther King was assassinated and Fred Shuttlesworth was lucky to survive on a number of occasions. Overall, in conclusion the Church and Youth played an extremely important role in the civil rights movement, contributing together to a number of significant campaigns such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Student sit-ins, the Birmingham Campaign, the March on Washington and the Selma Marches.
The two were also crucial in helping pass historic legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and also working on many other civil rights projects that I have not been able to discuss, both before and after 1965. However it is also very important to recognise the contributions made to the civil rights movement by other groups, people and institutions, who, without, many of these successes would not have been possible.
These include labour groups, white sympathisers, government supporters and many other groups I have not mentioned. Finally it is important to remember that this paper is not intended as a complete assessment of the whole civil rights period, only the period up until 1965. Nevertheless, despite a number of changes and difficulties after 1965 for the Church and Youth, this does not detract at all from the gargantuan role they played whether assessing part of or the entire American civil rights struggle.