From MLK to BLM: Religion continues to play a critical role in the civil rights movement

During a Black Lives Matter protest in Greensboro, a woman — who declined to be identified — raises her hand in agreement with the preachings of Rev. Richard Hughes, a pastor at Saint James Presbyterian Church on June 7, 2020. Photo by Anton L. Delgado | NC News Intern Corps.

The reverberating cries of “Amen” were deafening to Rev. Richard Hughes as he stood on stage preaching about solidarity to more than 5,000 people at a recent Black Lives Matter protest in Greensboro.

Hughes sees his role as a pastor at Saint James Presbyterian Church as both a religious leader and a civil rights advocate.

“My faith is not mutually exclusive from justice, the two go hand in hand,” Hughes said. “As a faith leader, it is my obligation to speak against injustice. Jesus was a victim of injustice.

“If I don’t mention that when I preach, I’m complicit. And if I become complicit with his executioners, I’m complicit with the executioners of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, all of them.”

As it did in the historic civil rights movement, religion is playing a significant role in the Black Lives Matter movement.

A christian perspective

Opening prayers and Christian sermons are common features of Black Lives Matter events in North Carolina. According to a religious landscape study by Pew Research Center conducted in 2014, nearly 80% of adults in the state identify as Christian.

“In terms of Blacks, we have always felt that God takes the side of the oppressed in society,” Hughes said. “Whenever God reveals himself in scripture, it almost always happens through the oppressed. That gives us a sense of hope that God is on our side and that we have a righteous indignation to rise up against systems of injustice.”

Hughes believes God is listening to the current movement in the same way he did in Biblical scripture. He referenced Exodus 3:9, which reads “And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them.”

 

The civil rights movement

 

Historically and today, Christianity has been a unifying factor between those directly affected by systemic racism and those standing in solidarity with them.

“The civil rights movement is an extension of the social gospel and liberation theology,” said Andrew Monteith, assistant professor of religious studies at Elon University. “People who believe in that are looking to create a society better than the one they started with. For them, not only is progress plausible, but it is their duty to take an active role in it.”

According to Monteith, a historian of American religion and power, even though liberation theology is credited to Christianity, it is a belief in many other religions. The belief is that liberation from social, political, and economic oppression is critical for ultimate salvation.

Hughes believes this interfaith unity and the unanimous belief in liberation is critical to the success of Black Lives Matter.

“Whites have to be comfortable coming into Black spaces and be willing to play second fiddle, if you will, to lift up the voices of Black people,” Hughes said. “You can’t speak for us, but you can speak with us.”

 

Interfaith unity

 

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a white minister and Christian writer based in Durham, is an ally of the Black Lives Matter movement and other initiatives aiming to end systemic racism.

“Ally-ship is important because it recognizes there are directly impacted people on any issue, who should speak for themselves,” Wilson-Hartgrove said. “When it comes to the question of how racist systems press down on Black bodies, the most important thing somebody like [me] can do is show up and lift up the voices who have experienced that and who are crying out.”

Wilson-Hartgrove helped organize the June 20 event of the Poor People’s Campaign, which has been calling for sweeping national policy reforms aiming to end systemic racism and improve general welfare, working conditions, health care and wealth redistribution.

According to Wilson-Hartgrove, religion plays a prominent role in every aspect of activism.

“Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen,” Wilson-Hartgrove said. “People who hunger and thirst for justice, who want to see a better world, have faith to place their footing while they reach toward that future that is not yet.”

 

Religion and activism

While Christianity has historically been the religion most present in U.S. civil rights movements, Wilson-Hartgrove believes the Black Lives Matter movement is pushing for more diversity.

“It’s important to acknowledge that the organized resistance of the civil rights movement over the past 40 years, has been a Christian nationalist resistance,” Wilson-Hartgrove said. “In light of that, progressive movements that are for expanding equal protection under the law and for greater justice have been intentional about saying that’s not the only kind of Christianity.”

Christian leaders need to encourage people of all faiths to take an active role in the current civil rights struggle, Wilson-Hartgrove said.

“I try to advocate for a Christianity that challenges Christian nationalism,” Wilson-Hartgrove said. “One that includes our Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist neighbors and those who are not of a particular religious tradition but believe in the moral values of the Constitution. The movement has been intentionally interfaith and inclusive to people whose faith is in a moral universe.”

 

Interfaith activism

 

Fred Guttman, a rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, has been a longtime supporter of interfaith activism. A few years ago, he was an energetic door-knocking participant of “Moral Mondays,” a series of protests in North Carolina led by religious leaders seeking to restore morality throughout the state.

“Jews believe every human being is created in the image of God,” Guttman said. “Therefore, any taint of racism is against the basic principles of our religious faith. We are all living on this blue, green spaceship we call Earth. We have to work together towards a day where bigotry and racism will not exist and all human beings acknowledge the very precious nature of each other.”

Even though the 68-year-old rabbi has been cautious about returning to the streets because of COVID-19, he has actively advocated for the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Just a few days ago to his synagogue, Guttman called for Juneteenth — one of the oldest commemorations of the end of slavery in the U.S. — to be recognized as a federal holiday.

As activists from different faiths, like Guttman, promote the cause, current events continue to add to the demands of the movement.

 

“Rocking the boat”

 

The deaths of Floyd and Taylor at the hands of police officers re-sparked the entire initiative, which immediately focused on ending police brutality.

Following the June 12 shooting of Rayshard Brooks by an Atlanta police officer, the movement’s causes grew to include: defunding law enforcement, increasing Black voter turnout, removing Confederate statues and recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday.

“It’s only when you rock the boat and make people uncomfortable that we can really start to have some productive change in society,” Hughes said. “If you make everyone comfortable, essentially nothing gets done.”

So, to continue advocating both in and out the pulpit, Hughes is working with local groups to organize an anti-racism rally in Greensboro’s Westminster Presbyterian Church — located in a predominantly white neighborhood — on July 4.

By constantly rocking the boat, Hughes says people will eventually listen and be willing to “have productive conversations that lead to positive change.”

“The minute I become silent is the minute I become complicit with injustice,” Hughes said. “And that will be the minute I stop practicing my faith.”

 

NC News Intern Corps

 

The NC News Intern Corps is a program of the NC Local News Workshop, funded by the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund and housed at Elon University’s School of Communications.

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Anton Delgado

Creció en Filipinas, se graduó de la Universidad de Elon, donde se especializó en periodismo y estudios internacionales y globales. Se ha desempeñado como editor gerente en Elon News Network