Faith During the Civil Rights Movement

Note: The text of my presentation, via Zoom, with the Seekers Adult Sunday School Class of The Episcopal Church of Advent, Spartanburg, SC, on Sunday, November 8, 2020.

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I reflect on the topic, Faith During the Civil Rights Movement, through what, for me, is now a characteristically historically-focused lens. For history, that collection, organization, and interpretation of the past words and deeds of our human being and doing, is a fundamental aspect of my comprehension.

And, in the light of our inherent human individuality – in nature and nurture, history and memory, thought and feeling, observation and opinion – I do not believe that any two people, no matter how similar and no matter how long-lived their relationship, ever (can) mean precisely the same thing when using the same words. Therefore, I place a premium on defining my terms.

By faith, I mean my trust in God; primarily in God’s existence and benevolence as revealed in Jesus through the power (the empowerment of discernment) of the Holy Spirit.

When I think of the Civil Rights Movement, generally, I have in mind the formal Civil Rights Era; that roughly 13-year period of 1955-1968.

In 1954, the Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education, ruled that segregation in public schooling was unconstitutional.[1] Brown had the sanguine effect of encouraging people, both black and white, individually and collectively, “to go public” in their activism to bring an end to institutional racial discrimination and segregation.

That activism included large and small non-violent-based-and-focused demonstrations, marches and sit-ins, rallies and speeches, and, in general, the exercise of the 1st Amendment right to seek government redress for grievances.

My maternal grandmother and aunt, Audia Mae Hoard Roberts[2] and Evelyn Hoard Roberts,[3] were members of the St. Louis Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and staunch civil rights advocates. With the permission of my parents (William and Lolita Abernathy who, though also NAACP members, were not as out-in-the-street activists!), my grandmother and aunt commandeered my brother Wayne and me to tag along, to drag along with them. Hence, we saw and were taught firsthand the tribulations and triumphs of that time.

Regarding triumphs, I highlight:

The 1957 Civil Rights Act,[4] which brought an official end to racial segregation in public schools;

The 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, and later sexual orientation;

The 1965 Voting Rights Act prohibiting racial discrimination in voting;

The 1968 Fair Housing Act barring discrimination in housing based on religion; also including the protected categories of race and national origin.

All this I believe was and is positive. However, as all this, I also believe, was and is necessary, it indicates the prevalence of operative counterforces. Again, defining my terms:

Prejudice: The negative view of others based on external features or birth-derived characteristics;

Bigotry: Prejudice enacted, in word and deed;

Racism: Bigotry enacted with an element of power in the denial of opportunity;

White Supremacy (which I consider a natural attribute of our national identity evolving from the founding of America on the bedrock of institutional slavery): The belief that white people, as a superior race, should (are predestined) to dominate society to the exclusion or detriment of other racial and ethnic groups;

White Paternalism (which I consider a kinder, gentler form of White Supremacy): The belief that white people, as über-privileged, have a duty (noblesse oblige) to manage the disadvantaged; at best, to guide the deprived to aspire to the standards they have set for society.

All of this is alive and unwell today. For a moment, hold that thought.

The formal Civil Rights Era ended around 1968 with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the rise of the Black Power Movement, which summoned black people to reclaim black history and culture and to repudiate assimilation into mainstream American (read: white) society.

However, because the aforementioned counterforces remain alive and unwell in today’s America, I believe that we continue to need a Civil Rights Movement in which peoples of all races and religions, cultures and creeds, philosophies and theologies, political and social orientations daily, actively in manners small and great, individually and collectively, labor to bring in the day when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven; meaning that we, in the language of our Baptismal Covenant “…seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving (our neighbors) as (ourselves)” and “…strive for justice and peace among all people…respect(ing) the dignity of every human being”[5]

Now, for a sobering note. The Episcopal Church is the church of my birth, through which I have served from my 1952 baptism, my 1963 Confirmation, my ordinations as deacon and priest in 1977 and 1978, respectively, and unto this day. As I reflect on American history, from the founding of this nation, through the Civil War, the Reconstruction and Jim Crow periods, and the Civil Rights Era, the Episcopal Church, my Episcopal Church has no illustrious institutional record of advocacy for equality. Yes, many were the individuals who labored “to bring in God’s kingdom,” yet the voices, both of the hierarchy and the folk in the pews, largely, were muted.

In a harsh historical oddity, at the end of the Civil War, the Episcopal Church found an easier path than other denominations toward the reunion of North and South precisely because the church never took a public stand against what has been called “America’s original sin,” institutional slavery.

From the Civil War forward, the Episcopal Church has wrestled with tensions (internal, conflicting, opposite-direction-pulling yearnings) of:

  • The Church as a Christian movement v. The Church as a Christian institution
  • The Church (out) in society v. The Church in and for (only) the church
  • Communal, outward activism v. Individual, inward sanctity
  • Race and equality (“We must fight for what’s right!”) v. Reconciliation and unity (“Can’t we all, please, just get along?”)

All this said, I confess that there are times I am given to despair; the sense of meaninglessness that cries, “What’s the use?”

However, the object of my faith is neither the church nor the world. My faith is in God and God alone. Therefore, in the face of all that denies and defies God’s will, whether in the church or the world, my heart sings the words of that song of greatest confidence, Psalm 62.1-2:

For God alone my soul in silence waits,

for from God comes my salvation.

God alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress;

I shall never be shaken.

As an olden Pentecostal preacher, regarding biblical interpretation, used to say, “Sometimes, you have to take a scriptural text line by line and precept by precept.” Thus…

For God alone my soul in silence waits…

That is, without anxiety, especially that which provokes feverish, unfocused human activity, which, fundamentally, being self-referential (“I can do this!”) and, at times, self-reverential (I know what’s right!”), does not and cannot align with God’s will.

for from God comes my salvation…

That is, Divine guidance, which, though the present tense, “comes,” is used, the reference, in the Hebrew, is to times of past deliverance; thus, a reality Divinely-bestowed and humanly received, thus, already known.

God alone is my rock and my salvation and my fortress…

God is strong, merciful and graceful, and stable; therefore…

I shall never be shaken.

In verses 6-7, these words are repeated with one notable difference…

For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly my hope is in God.[6]

“Salvation” in verse one is replaced by “hope” in verse six. For to believe, to know of God’s acts of past deliverance is to believe, to know of the promise of future deliverance. For divine hope is not wishful thinking, that is, my expression of my desires in the face of circumstances beyond my power to command or to control. Rather, in the words of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.[7]

Therefore, in the face of all that would bring me to despair, still, my hope rests in God’s deliverance.

In the words of that olden gospel song, which became a protest song and an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement

We shall overcome…

We’ll walk hand in hand…

We shall live in peace…

We are not afraid…

(For) God is on our side…

Oh, deep in my heart

I do believe

We shall overcome, some day[8]

© 2020 PRA


[1] Brown effectively invalidated the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision that upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation laws for public facilities as long as the segregated facilities were equal in quality (in short, “separate but equal”).

[2] Audia Mae Hoard Roberts (1890-1979)

[3] Evelyn Hoard Roberts (1920-2007)

[4] The 1957 Civil Rights Act was, in some sense, the more energetic progeny of the 1875 Civil Rights Act (the latter, enacted in response to violations of the civil liberties of African Americans in the post-Civil War Reconstruction period).

[5] The Book of Common Prayer, page 305; my parenthetical and italicized modifications

[6] Psalm 62.6-7

[7] Hebrews 11.1

[8] Words, traditional

2 thoughts on “Faith During the Civil Rights Movement

  1. Dear Paul,

    I so much appreciate your sharing this explication of national and Episcopal church history, and even more I appreciate learning about your grandmother and your aunt and your own introduction to Civil Rights activism in the 1950’s and -60’s in St. Louis. I find myself wishing I could sit at your feet and simply listen to your stories.

    Your willingness to continue guiding and teaching white people, as many of us remain appallingly unaware of so much that was and is going on around us in the form of the lives of the Black brothers and sisters we were conditioned neither to see in any particularity nor to seek to know, remains movingly generous, compassionate, and loving. It is because of your deep conviction and faith and that of people like you that I believe “We shall overcome” will come to pass, emphasis on the WE.

    Thank you for sharing your life in so many ways with those of us who are coming to understand how much we have not seen and not understood about ourselves and the world we inhabit. While I know how deeply it is our own work to fill and heal the terrible gaps that were built into white consciousness by forces whose power and malevolence we are still only beginning to grasp, your grace and generosity and that of others like you are gifts for which no amount of gratitude is commensurate.

    I am so glad you have kept the faith, Paul. And I am so grateful you are so deeply committed to sharing it.

    With continuing gratitude and much love,

    Karen

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  2. My dear Karen, always, you are kind to me. I appreciate your words of approbation. Aye, e’en more, I appreciate you.

    Now, truth be told, I go back-and-forth in regard to continuing to share my experience and sense of things (life and history) regarding race, whether in America or the world at large. There are moments when I channel the language (and temperament) of many of my friends who say, in so many words, “I’m tired of trying to teach white people about race.”
    And then there are (so far) more moments for me — either, in the case of this class on “Faith During the Civil Rights Movement,” when I have been invited to speak or when I perceive an opportunity to offer (I pray with the grace of calm) my view of another’s apparent inadvertent slight or revelation of personal bias — when I continue to enter the proverbial breach. I suspect, reflecting on my own life and experience and my inner sense of myself (indeed, my self), the latter is my default position. For there is something within me that continues to yearn to engage — to share AND to learn…

    And in fractious times as these in our world and our America, retreat strikes me as a not faithful (“faithful” as in being and keeping true to the idea, the belief, the truth of the commonality of our humankindness) option.

    Love,
    Paul

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