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.