The Civil Rights Movement (1954–1966), the struggle for equal civil rights for African-American people in America, was one of several events that culminated in the convulsive decade of the 1960s. Although most churches entered the civil rights struggle late and with reservations, their beliefs were basic to the moral premises of the movement. Traditional patterns of segregation within churches remained, but the theology and social conscience of American churches were significantly modified by the Civil Rights Movement.

During the decade following the 1954 Supreme Court decision that overturned the “separate but equal” approach of the earlier Plessy vs. Ferguson decision (1896), American churches remained essentially passive toward civil rights. In predominantly white churches, traditional segregationist and racist attitudes prevailed, especially in the South. Although churches typically opposed racial violence and officially hailed the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision, the idea of racial equality was alien to many accepted beliefs and practices.

Thus the original impetus for civil rights activism came from outside the institutional church. Even in African-American churches there were barriers to direct involvement by clergymen. Many decades of passivity were difficult to overcome, although many African-American lay parishioners and clergymen were members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and other minority advocacy organizations. It was the Montgomery bus boycott and the rapid development of other centers of nonviolent activism in places like Tallahassee, Mobile, Birmingham and Nashville that spurred the increased involvement by African-American pastors in the movement.

A significant historical event for the movement was the creation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. The Conference was to provide the movement with both leadership and a framework for collective action. Based largely in local churches, the SCLC drew upon the traditional linkage of religion and liberation indigenous to African-American experience. It also attracted the unprecedented grassroots support that produced the campaigns in Birmingham, St. Augustine and Selma between 1963 and 1965 and enabled the Civil Rights Movement to attract a national support network. By then a growing number of white clergy and lay persons were actively involved in the movement. Some, including the Rev. James Reeb and the Rev. Bruce Klunder, lost their lives for the sake of the movement.

The increased activism by churches in the mid-1960s was actually the fourth major phase of their advocacy for civil rights in America. The first was during the abolitionist era preceding the Civil War, and the next significant watershed was just after World War 1, when the widespread racial violence of 1917–1919 triggered the involvement of a number of church-related organizations, such as the Commission on Interracial Cooperation (1919) and denominational service and missionary organizations. Methodist women were distinctive between the wars for their commitment to racial justice. But while Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Catholics and Episcopalians, among others, decried the racism and violence of this period, they did not de-segregate their seminaries or most of their local congregations.

After World War 2 the third juncture was reached. The plight of returning African-American soldiers and their families attracted further church involvement in civil rights. The double victory over both National Socialism abroad and racism at home proved elusive, leaving many African-Americans without adequate housing or jobs and eliciting sympathy from churches. Direct involvement by churches, however, remained limited, and clergy who took strong stands in their behalf were at some professional risk. By the mid-1950s few structural changes had occurred and segregationists frequently appealed to the Bible for justification of their position. White citizens’ councils, and even the Ku Klux Klan, had members who were active in churches. Nevertheless, the pendulum was swinging. Overt public violence in Birmingham (1963) and Selma (1965) had a marked impact on churches. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” not only countering the criticisms by a group of white Jewish and Christian clergymen, but also emphasizing Christian responsibility toward civil and human rights. The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act added momentum to the movement.

The peculiar problems and contributions of churches in the area of civil rights derived from the nature of the church itself. As African-American churches became the single most decisive factor in the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement, white congregations and clergy wrestled with the tension between their support of law and order and the direct action taken by movement leaders. Equally problematic was the apparent contradiction between the churches’ message of love and their defacto segregation. But as time passed, church courts, assemblies and ministerial associations reflected the progress of civil rights in America. Presbyterians created a Commission on Religion and Race in 1963, and in 1965–1966 Prince A. Taylor, Jr., became the first African-American person to head the Methodist Council of Bishops. Episcopalians created the Episcopalian Society for Cultural and Racial Unity and by 1967 had established the Convention Special Program. Roman Catholics enlarged their already extensive programs in civil and human rights advocacy, as did several other church structures.

Most churches, whether African-American or white, remained separate. African-American churches wanted to retain their distinctive identity, and demographics also contributed to the pattern of separate congregational existence. In some ways dialog across denominational and racial lines increased. This was one of the most important results of the Civil Rights Movement for American churches. In retrospect it can be seen that religious faith was crucially important for the Civil Rights Movement. And in turn the progress of the movement exposed racism to a sharper theological critique, providing the historical context within which the beliefs and practices that had maintained segregation for centuries could be re-examined.

See also Black Religion; Black Theology; King, Jr., Martin Luther; Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Bibliography. A. Fairclough, “The Preachers and the People: The Origins and Early Years of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,” JSH 52 (1986):403–440; C. E. Lincoln, The Black Experience in Religion (1974); A. D. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change (1984); H. M. Nelson, “Ministerial Roles and Social Actionist Stance: Protestant Clergy and Protest in the Sixties,” ASR 38 (1973):375–386.

T. R. Peake

Fuente: Dictionary of Christianity in America