The Bible in the Civil Rights Movement by Dennis R. Edwards

If you visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC, you would not be able to miss the impressive statue of the civil rights leader, carved in the Stone of Hope and prominently displayed as the focal point of the exhibit. Adjacent to the statue is a wall engraved with quotations related to peace, justice, and love from Dr. King’s years of public ministry. One of the quotations is part of an oracle from the Hebrew prophet Amos:

But let justice roll down like waters,

            and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24)


It’s not surprising that a Baptist preacher would quote the Bible. Yet the Bible took on special significance for many involved in the Civil Rights Movement. It informed their sense of justice, not only within the confines of a local religious gathering, but throughout society.

Who are some Civil Rights activists who used the Bible?

Dr. King, even if the most visible and well-known, was not the only clergyperson, church attendee, or religious leader involved in the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century. Many of the active participants in the Civil Rights Movement were people who professed and demonstrated faith in God. For example, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) is an organization that emerged from the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955–1956 and whose name communicates explicit dependence upon teachings in the Bible that undergird Christian faith.

There were many other clergymen along with Dr. King who relied upon the Bible to guide their involvement in the movement. Among the most well-known are Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Rev. Vernon Johns (Dr. King’s predecessor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama), Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, Rev. Wyatt T. Walker, and Rev. Jesse Jackson. Despite the movement’s male-dominated leadership, it depended heavily upon churchgoing women. Some luminaries include Coretta Scott King; Diane Nash, who was raised Catholic and became a staunch advocate of nonviolence; and Rosa Parks, a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church who was active in the NAACP prior to her refusal to move to the back of the bus.

It’s notable that Jewish people, also motivated by their understanding of the Bible, were active in the fight for African American’s civil rights. God-worshipping people relied upon the Bible to guide their nonviolent participation in the movement and to articulate the outcomes of their activism.

How did the Bible guide participation in the Civil Rights Movement and articulate its outcomes?

The Bible was a primary source for justifying nonviolent protests. While Gandhi’s leadership in India’s struggle for independence from Great Britain served as a political model for the movement, the Bible provided spiritual motivation. In his memoir Walking with the Wind, iconic Civil Rights leader and legislator John Lewis recounts his own understanding of the Bible’s connection to the movement, noting how he learned about concepts such as justice, nonviolent civil disobedience, and redemptive suffering from clergy members and other religious leaders.

Additionally, sections of the Bible, such as the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7), encouraged African Americans and their allies to stand up to white supremacist mobs, brutal law enforcement agents, dogs, and hoses. Rather than being a sign of passivity and weakness, “turning the other cheek” (Matt 5:39) became an indictment upon such bullies as Bull Connor of Birmingham, AL, and the law enforcement agents in Selma, AL, who bloodied demonstrators marching across the Edmund Pettis Bridge on March 7, 1965.

Civil Rights are a matter of justice. Biblical teachings regarding justice were used to describe the desired outcomes of the Civil Rights Movement. Leaders not only invoked the words of prophets like Amos, but also the teachings of Saint Paul. For example, Dr. King’s essay, “Paul’s Letter to American Christians” references Rom 12:2, “Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind” (KJV) to denounce hypocrisy among professing Christians. King’s essay also cited the apostle Paul’s words in Phil 3:20 to remind Christian readers of their status as heavenly citizens who are a “colony of heaven” on earth. Jesus, who did not violently retaliate in the face of injustice (see 1Pet 2:23) and who taught “love your enemies” (Matt 5:44), served as the ultimate model for the nonviolent pursuit of justice.

Dennis R. Edwards, "The Bible in the Civil Rights Movement", n.p. [cited 23 Jul 2021]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/passages/related-articles/bible-in-the-civil-rights-movement

Contributors

Edwards-Dennis

Dennis R. Edwards
Associate Professor of New Testament, North Park Theological Seminary

Dennis R. Edwards is Associate Professor of New Testament at North Park Theological Seminary and has three decades of pastoral ministry experience. He is the author of 1 Peter in the Story of God Bible Commentary series (Zondervan); What Is the Bible and How Do We Understand It? (Herald Press); and Might from the Margins: The Gospel’s Power to Turn the Tables on Injustice (Herald Press).

A territory controlled by a different nation, generally in separate geographic regions.

a leader of a nonviolent resistance movement in India during the middle of the twentieth-century

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

German cleric usually considered to have formally launched the Protestant Reformation with his list of 95 "theses" itemizing grievances against the Roman Catholic Church, especially its sale of indulgences claimed to absolve individuals' sins.

Service or a religious vocation to help others.

A person deemed holy by a religious tradition, especially in Roman Catholicism.

A message usually delivered orally by a religious leader.

A collection of Jesus' moral sayings, including the Beatitudes and several parables, recorded in Matt 5-7.

Amos 5:24

24But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Matt 5-7

The Beatitudes
1When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.2Then he began to speak, and taught them, s ... View more

Matt 5:39

39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;

Rom 12:2

2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptabl ... View more

Phil 3:20

20But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.

1Pet 2:23

23 When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.

Matt 5:44

44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,

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