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African American Religious Intellectuals and the Theological Foundations of the Civil Rights Movement, 1930–55

  • Dennis C. Dickerson (a1)


Among the innumerable warriors against legalized racial segregation and discrimination in American society, the iconic Martin Luther King, Jr. emerged as a principal spokesman and symbol of the black freedom struggle. The many marches that he led and the crucial acts of civil disobedience that he spurred during the 1950s and 1960s established him and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as rallying points for civil rights activities in several areas in the American South. King's charisma among African Americans drew from his sermonic rhetoric and its resonance with black audiences. Brad R. Braxton, a scholar of homiletics, observed that King as a black preacher “made the kinds of interpretive moves that historically have been associated with African American Christianity and preaching.” Braxton adds that “for King Scripture was a storybook whose value resided not so much in the historical reconstruction or accuracy of the story in the text, but rather in the evocative images, in the persuasive, encouraging anecdotes of the audacious overcoming of opposition, and in its principles about the sacredness of the human person.” Hence, King's use of this hermeneutical technique with scriptural texts validated him as a spokesman for African Americans. On a spectrum stretching from unlettered slave exhorters in the nineteenth century to sophisticated pulpiteers in the twentieth century, King stood as a quintessential black preacher, prophet, and jeremiad “speaking truth to power” and bringing deliverance to the disinherited.



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1. Braxton, Brad R., “Martin Luther King, Jr.: Heir of the African American Interpretive Legacy,” A.M.E. Church Review 117, nos. 379–80 (fall 2000): 60.

2. Washington, James M., ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Harper and Row, 1986), 117–19.

3. Ibid., 125.

4. Cone, James H., “Martin Luther King, Jr., Black Theology-Black Church,” Theology Today 40 (01 1984): 409–20; Chappell, David L., Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

5. Quoted in Yancy, George, “Cornel West: The Vanguard of Existential and Democratic Hope,” in Cornel West: A Critical Reader, ed. George, Yancy (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2001), 2.

6. Cone, James H., “‘Let Suffering Speak’: The Vocation of a Black Intellectual,” in George, Yancy, ed., Cornel West: A Critical Reader, 108.

7. “Whither The Negro Church?” (seminar held at Yale Divinity School, New Haven, Conn., April 13–15, 1931), 3, 5, 42, 48.

8. Ibid., 37–38.

9. Ibid., 47.

10. Kapur, Sudarshan, Raising Up a Prophet: The African American Encounter with Gandhi (Boston: Beacon, 1992), 26, 28, 4849. Also see Danielson, Leilah, “‘In My Extremity I Turned to Gandhi’: American Pacifists, Christianity, and Gandhian Nonviolence, 1915–1941,” Church History 72:2 (06 2003): 361–88.

11. Ibid., 74, 79–81, 86.

12. Thurman, Howard, With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979), 8788, 103.

13. Ibid., 132.

14. Mays, Benjamin E., Born to Rebel: An Autobiography (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1971, 2003), 15556; Chapman, Mark, “‘Of One Blood’: Mays and the Theology of Race Relations,” in Walking Integrity: Benjamin Elijah Mays, Mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Carter, Lawrence Edward Jr. (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1998), 233–61. The several themes Chapman identified in Mays's writings included commentary on the moral scandal of segregation, the global dimensions of racism, and biblical backing for integration.

15. Jelks, Randall M., “Benjamin E. Mays and the Creation of an Insurgent Negro Professional Clergy,” A.M.E. Church Review 118, no. 387 (07-09 2002): 32, 35.

16. “Whither The Negro Church,” 41.

17. Mays, Benjamin Elijah and Nicholson, Joseph William, The Negro's Church (New York: Institute for Social and Religious Research, 1933), 41, 5556, 9293, 225–27, 278, 291–92.

18. Mays, Benjamin E., The Negro's God As Reflected in His Literature (Boston: Chapman and Grimes/Mt. Vernon, 1938), vii, 245, 249, 255; Mikelson, Thomas I. S., “Mays, King, and The Negro's God,” in Carter, , ed., Walking Integrity, 186.

19. Thurman, Howard, “The Task of the Negro Ministry,” in A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life, ed. Fluker, Walter Earl and Tumber, Catherine (Boston: Beacon, 1998), 194, 199.

20. “Whither The Negro Church,” 5.

21. Taylor, Cynthia, “A. Philip Randolph and the Transformation of the Negro Church” (Ph.D. diss., Graduate Theological Union, 2003), 214–17, 225–26, 229, 260.

22. Ibid., 276, 288–304, 330; “Introduction,” in Fluker, and Tumber, , ed., A Strange Freedom, 5; Wilmore, Gayraud S., Black Religion and Black Radicalism (Maryknoll, N.Y., Orbis Books, 1973), 165.

23. Mays, , Born to Rebel, 162, 167; Kelsey, George D., “Current Strategies in U.S. Race Relations,” George D. Kelsey Papers (hereafter, Kelsey Papers), box 3, (notes undated), 2, Special Collections and Archives, Drew University Library, Madison, New Jersey; “Introduction,” in William Stuart, Nelson, ed., The Christian Way in Race Relations (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1948).

24. Thurman, Howard, “The Will to Segregation,” in Fluker, and Tumber, , ed., Strange Freedom, 218–19.

25. Kapur, , Raising up a Prophet, 134, 136–37.

26. Nelson, , ed., The Christian Way in Race Relations, 76, 8485, 95.

27. Ibid., 97–108, 111–205.

28. Ibid., 209–11, 223–25; Mays, Benjamin E., “The Moral Aspects of Segregation,” in Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Speaks: Representative Speeches of a Great American Orator, ed. Colston, Freddie C. (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2002), 6162.

29. Nelson, , ed., The Christian Way in Race Relations, 229.

30. Ibid., 233.

31. Ibid., 239, 244, 250.

32. Ibid., 29–30, 38; Trulear, Harold Dean, “George Kelsey, Christianity and Race: A View from the Academy,” The Princeton Theological Review 10, no., 2 (spring 2004): 37.

33. Nelson, , ed., The Christian Way in Race Relations, 43.

34. Kelsey, George D., “Current Strategy in U.S. Race Relations,” Kelsey Papers, box 3, (notes undated), 2; Kelsey, George D., “Racism in Relation to Certain Other Factors of Western Culture,” Kelsey Papers, box 3, (notes undated), 1.

35. Thurman, Howard, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston: Beacon, 1949, 1976), 13, 1519.

36. Ibid., 23, 26–27, 35, 100.

37. Kelsey, George D. to Pope, Liston, 11 December 1950, Kelsey Papers, box 8, Correspondence 1950; Clayborne, Carson, Luker, Ralph E., and Russell, Penny A., ed., The Papers of Martin Luther King, jr., vol. 1, 01 192906 1951, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 89.

38. Farmer, James, Lay Bare the Heart: An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement (New York: New American Library, 1985), 135–36, 142–43, 156; David, Halberstam, The Children (New York: Random House, 1998), 12; Carson, Clayborne, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981), 2224.

39. Colston, , ed., Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, 249; Fluker, and Tumber, , ed., Strange Freedom, 186; Kelsey, George D., “Dr. King and the Civil Rights Struggle in Perspective,” 2830, Kelsey Papers, box 3, (notes undated), 2.

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Church History
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  • EISSN: 1755-2613
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