I’m currently working on a paper analyzing the response of the Black Church to the Black Power Movement. My initial thoughts before doing research was that the black church largely rejected the message the Black Power Movement had to offer, however, after some research I’ve realized my initial thoughts were rooted more in a contemporary analysis of the black church. In truth, Black Churches had long been preaching and teaching the Black Power message long before Kwame Ture (Formerly Stokely Carmichael) popularized it in 1966.
Assuming the fundamental premise of black power that “Before a group can enter the open society, it must first close ranks,”* then black power has existed in the black church since before the American Revolution when there was a push for independent black Baptist and Methodist churches among free and enslaved black people. This was not just a means for black people to cope or a way to escape the white gaze, but it was a space that black folks organized for resistance. Thus, black power and the founding of the black church go hand-in-hand.
Throughout the history of the black church and religion there are numerous examples of black folks having a black liberation theology and black power message (though these were often cast in terms like “black nationalism” and “pan-Africanism”). C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya in The Black Church in the African American Experience provide some insight of this long history of black power and the black church when they assert: “The idea that God is black, for example, was set forth in David Walker’s antislavery Appeal of 1829 where he used the phrase “God of the Ethiopians.”** Bishop Henry McNeil Turner asserts in 1829 that:
“We have as much right biblically and otherwise to believe that God is a negro, as you buckra or white people have to believe that God is a fine looking, symmetrical and ornamented white man… Every race of people since time began who have attempted to describe their God by words, or by paintings, or by carvings, or by any other form or figure, have conveyed the idea that the God who made them and shaped their destinies was symbolized by themselves, and why should no the Negro believe that he resembles God as much as other people.” **
As we move throughout history we see more examples. Lincoln and Mamiya provide more evidence: “Marcus Garvey’s pronouncement that “a Black God was coming” was quickly confirmed by Father Divine’s claim that he, a short (five foot two), charismatic black man, indeed, was everybody’s God.” And how could we forget the Nation of Islam’s then and present conception of God as being a black man (Master Fard).**
What I’m discovering in my research, however, is that Ture’s cry of black power in the context of the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) became problematic for many black churches. Though SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), the two most militant and secular civil rights organizations and the undercurrent of black power during the CRM, had considerable roots in the black religious experience ( James Farmer of CORE was the son of clergy and John Lewis of SNCC was a seminary student) and many probably had religious convictions that gave them the liberty to boldly proclaim black power, there was considerable push back from many black churches. Those that pushed back claimed that they did not want to ruin any gains that had been made by the CRM. In the last half of 1966, churches had meetings, black religious organizations made statements, and there were creations of new churches all as a response to the Black Power message. What I’m arguing in the current paper is that only in context of the CRM was Black Power a problem.
An Aside: There needs to be work done on the ground level of how churchgoers responded to this message. Although there is a considerable gap in talking about the Black Church during the Black Power Movement, the literature that does exist is mostly discussing clergy. This is understandably an issue of sources, but it is not something that can be overcome. Lay members and, in particular, women need to be given voice in this developing narrative because for them maybe God was not only black, but a Black Woman. Perhaps historians can look to the work of Womanist theologians like Delores Williams, Emilie Townes, and Renita Weems (my pastor!) to provide greater insight. I know there’s something to say about the religious beliefs of key figures like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and countless others.
*Charles V. Hamilton and Kwame Ture, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America (New York: Random House Inc., 1978), 54.
** C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1990), 176-177.