From the time that slaves first arrived in America to the time that the civil rights movement reached its peak in Birmingham in the year 1963, religion and the church played a significant role among African Americans. Black American churches supported businesses, sponsored education, developed moral discipline, provided benevolence and supported the civil rights protests. Fundamentally, religion was a spiritual fortress, which protected the blacks from racist environment that sought to discriminate them. Through religion, black Americans gained hope and self-esteem in their segregated society where they lived (Eagles 202).
During the economic depression, African Americans resorted to religion as a form of response to hardships. The blacks formed American Community Party, which attempted to use religion and churches to recruit its members. Despite resistance from church leaders, two strong religious movements emerged to serve the needs of black Americans as they strive to survive in harsh economic times in a racist society.
As the population of black Americans increased, the religious bodies took the frontline in serving the spiritual, secular, physical and other needs of blacks in a segregated society. The religious bodies were the central institutions in the society due to positions they held. Religious bodies supported and enhanced institutions started by the blacks in society. Religious leaders used their unique position in society to fill economic, educational and welfare needs to the black society. Religious bodies supported institutions that were vital to blacks such as women’s club and other fraternal organization. At this stage, the leaders did not engage in frontal attack on racism, but they supported others in protesting against segregation and excesses of Jim Crow system (Kolchin 198).
The religious experience of 1956 to 1963 of the black Americans started a resistance to free blacks from the stiff segregation that existed in society. The blacks found support from their pastors and unique religion. This movement ended the deeply entrenched segregation in the city and provided further rights for blacks. It is crucial to note that the movement reflected black American religion in every way. Religious leaders and churches adopted direct confrontation rather than legal solutions or petitions as was the case in earlier protests. The religious movements attracted Martin Luther King, Junior where he organized large protests that captured the attention of the nation.
This led to the signing of Civil Rights Act of 1964. King condemns violence and instead urges people to embrace love for each other. King preached these sermons at the height of racial tension and civil right movements in America (King 43). The nonviolence messages King delivered were part of African American religion. King captures the conditions at the time. He used the sermons to condemn violence in Vietnam, racial segregation and nuclear proliferation fueled by scientific discoveries (King 99, 155).
After World War II, the religious bodies and churches became militant. They demanded full rights and freedoms. Religious leaders became the fundamental force behind these movements. At the same time, church leaders maintained their roles as spiritual leaders and guardians of institutions. The militancy approach overtook the gradual process of demanding change. Religious leaders demanded full end of segregation. Religious sermons played vital roles since pastors used them to gather support and participation for the movements through people’s personal acts of courage (King 145).
Black American religious leaders had an immense influence in the society. This leadership influence resulted from several factors. During the slavery period, slavery church leaders emerged as key personalities in the slave quarters. They gave hope and security through their singing, prayers and preaching. After slavery came to an end, religious leader created vital institution in society i.e. the church. Religious leaders found leadership in their constituencies and followers. They were close to the masses. Church leaders also had the economic and political advantage that most blacks did not have at the time. From this point, one can now understand the religious experience as a political tool for liberation among the black community of America.
Critics continue to argue about the nature of African American religion and their churches. Others viewed it as originally conservative, compensatory, and otherworldly. At the same time, other scholars argue that African American religion was radical, militant, and this worldly. Others maintain that African American religion exhibited both aspects of compensatory and militancy. The church experiences at Birmingham confirm that the African American religions had both elements of militancy and compensatory. The religious bodies performed a function of compensatory by helping blacks cope up with harsh economic times and racist society. Blacks used their religion as a source of hope and consolation in the face of oppression and discrimination (Lincoln & Mamiya 199).
Black American religious experience also talked of otherworldly. Blacks believed that this life was neither the end nor the full measure of one’s existence. The blacks experienced compensatory role of the church and religion during the economic depression time. Religion gave the blacks spiritual solutions by focusing attention on religious purity and rituals rather than confronting the social and political situation. Religion adopted the use of gospel music and spiritual traditions, which had significant elements of otherworldly. This way, the blacks could face life in their day to day existence (King 119).
On the other hand, religious experience in Birmingham had radical and prophetic views. Religious leaders became more radical and spoke out against segregation. After the World War II, leaders demanded the abolition of segregation and equal rights for black Americans. Religious bodies and civil rights movements became one. Civil rights movements brought protest tradition to the church through breaking of the laws, marches and other confrontation approaches. However, King encouraged nonviolence approaches (King 155).
We must appreciate the fact that African American religion is the central institution in the black community. After the abolition of slavery, the church was the first institution the blacks formed. It is the religious movements which lifted blacks out of their social, political and economic woes. Religious bodies also proved that self-help was a vital aspect for prosperity. The former slaves developed their system of theology, strategies and institutions for their prosperity. They also managed to inculcate essential values such as self-discipline, morality an education through religion. King shows the role of religion in America. Religion reflects the basic concerns of human existence and King captured them in his sermons. He preaches love, reconciliation and issues of human conflicts. Strength of Love also captures religion and its failures. People experienced religious divisions, biases, acceptance of status quo in unfair society (King 119).
Religious bodies have been fundamental institutions in the black community. They provided support, comfort and cooperation. Black migrants have established churches everywhere they have settled. However, there are not only black churches occupying America, but also white ones. There are religious experiences, which can be told from the view points of the white missionaries. This essay has considered the African American religious experience because of the rich history it possesses in the black struggle for equal rights. The religious leadership experience provided by the churchmen in the civil rights movements, which even attracted Martin Luther Junior, for the massive march to signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes black religious experience fascinating.
Eagles, Charles. The Civil Rights Movement in America. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1987. Print.
King, Martin Luther Jr. Strength to Love. St Paul, MN: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1981. Print.
Kolchin, Peter. First Freedom: The Responses ofAlabama’s Blacks to Emancipation and Reconstruction. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1972. Print.
Lincoln, Eric & Mamiya, Lawrence. The Black Church in the Afiican American Experience. Durhan: Duke University Press, 1990. Print.