The narrative of racial justice work in the United States has long positioned religious organizations and religious leaders in the forefront. Being amongst the first organizations for and by African Americans, many assume black churches head all public activism. And while it is true that the early history of racial struggle is marked by the presence of such churches and their leaders, this is not to say that “free-thinkers” within African-American communities weren’t also vital in the push for racial advancement. Think in terms of early figures like Frederick Douglass, who, he argues, didn’t know the value of prayer until he prayed with his legs. This is all to say, the struggle for racial justice in the United States from its earliest moments involved the effort of communities and persons, representing a variety of theistic and “free-thought” (read agnostic, humanist, and atheist) worldviews.
The dominant story of protest is a one-dimensional depiction of the twentieth century Civil Rights Movement as the brainchild of black churches, orchestrated by religious leaders, and populated by church members. We ignore the more theologically skeptical—if not outright humanistic or atheistic—orientation of key figures such as A. Philip Randolph, the Black Panther Party, and the Student Non-violent Leadership Committee. Despite the actual diversity of worldviews presented during the twentieth-century struggle for racial justice, we have made it the work of a select grouping of religious (of the Abrahamic variety) organizations and their leaders. We chronicle the efforts of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference under the leadership of Dr. Martin L. King, Jr., and, on occasion, we will highlight the work of women such as Ella Baker.
While these organizations and these leaders must be recognized, to limit our view to only them damages the full manner in which racial inequality captured the imagination and energy of a wide range of U.S. citizens. Not all spoke of moral obligation and ethical requirements along theological lines. Some preferred a vocabulary of struggle in a strong sense of human accountability and responsibility without mention of God or gods.
Reflecting on the struggle for racial justice within our current historical moment, the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, marks the same diversity of worldviews and motivations for moral and ethical outrage. In other words, if one took the diversity of theological and non-theological dynamics of the Civil Rights Movement and rolled it into one complex approach, one would have the Black Lives Matter movement. It has a Christian dimension marked by the involvement of individual Christians and Christian leaders, while also reflecting the righteous outrage of other theistic traditions. Finally, it houses without difficulty agnostics, atheists, and humanists. But unlike earlier efforts, the Black Lives Matter movement avoids the strict hierarchical arrangement of leadership that defined so much of the Civil Rights Movement’s approach.
There may be drawbacks to this more egalitarian approach, such as inconsistent messaging and branding. Still, there are advantages, including greater appreciation for the separation of church and state that affords a more robust and expansive narrative of justice not strangled by restrictive theological categories and limitations. For instance, recognizing the need to include and articulate the dilemma of black women and LBGTQ members of African American communities doesn’t meet as strongly with resistance, in that church teachings don’t trump appreciation for the diversity of the African American population and the integrity of that diversity. Antiquated notions of sin and righteousness don’t enter into the conversation. In addition, and this is a vital consideration, the more egalitarian approach of Black Lives Matter opens and urges a greater sense of accountability and responsibility. There are no special skills, no divine callings, serving as a litmus test for authentic voice. There is something more organic and synergistic about this de-centralizing of leadership. Of course, this is not to say there aren’t key spokespersons highlighted through social media, but this is not the same as saying the directives for engagement are produced by a central figure (or figures) using a top-down approach. Rather, their model involves an organic nurturing of skills, capacity, and persistence within the group—a “how should we do our work so as to maximize our diversity of talents and abilities?” posture.
What remains vital for Black Lives Matter is reminiscent of 1960s radical optimism. “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” as Dr. King put it, or “We shall overcome someday,” as the masses sang. There, however, is a twist. Black Lives Matters embraces hopefulness regarding the democratic process, but it has a measured realism regarding outcomes. In appreciating the ongoing nature of struggle and the web-like nature of oppression, it senses the manner in which any push for justice encounters a system with the capacity to alter itself and thereby provides the illusion of fundamental change. Still, through its defused style of coordination, it continues to expose, stand against, and educate regarding racial disregard.