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As the nation follows the trial of white police officer Derek Chauvin, charged with the killing of African American George Floyd, the language and arguments seem to be a continuation of the mid 20th century civil rights movement. I recently read Charles Marsh’s book God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights. Marsh wrote, “both the civil rights and the anti-civil right movements were saturated with religion; in every mass meeting, church service, and Klan rally, God’s name was invoked and his power claimed. White conservatives and civil rights activists, black militants and white liberals, black moderates and klansman, all staked their particular claims for racial justice and social order on the premise that God was on their side.” Marsh chronicled the stories of five different activists and how they understood the ways their faith or “calling” connected them to issues of civil rights in Mississippi in the middle of the 20th century.
According to Marsh, Fannie Lou Hamer left her work in the cotton fields to “work for Jesus” in civil rights activism, becoming the voice of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). Hamer joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and worked in voter registration and grass-roots political organizing. Her work with MFDP attempted to unseat the all-white delegation at the National Democratic Convention in Atlantic City in August of 1964. Hamer firmly believed that her faith was meant to be lived out in action: “when the people came to Mississippi in 1964, to us it was the result of all our faith—all we had always hoped for. Our prayers and all we had lived for started to be translated into action. Now we have action, and we’re doing something that will not only free the black man in Mississippi but hopefully will free the white one as well.”
Sam Holloway Bowers, Jr. was the “high priest of white Christian militancy, considered Mrs. Hamer and her fellow traveler betrayers of ‘Jesus the Galiliean.’” As the elected Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi, Bower was instrumental in a four year campaign of white terrorism, and allegedly orchestrated nine murders, seventy-five bombings of black churches, and over three hundred assaults. Bower, interviewed by Marsh, believed himself a priest who searched out the heretics: civil rights activists, “liberal media whores” and “pagan academics” to be eliminated, not forgiven.
William Douglas Hudgins, preeminent Southern Baptist minister of the First Baptist Church of Jackson, MS, believed that “black suffering has nothing to do with following Jesus.” Hudgins preached a blend of traditional Southern Baptist theology, anti-modernist fundamentalism and civil religion with an emphasis on spiritual and personal purity, according to Marsh. That purity meant living and worshipping separately from African Americans.
Reverend Edwin King, a white chaplain of Tougaloo College in Jackson, MS and the National Committeeman of the MFDP played the role of church reformer. King worked to desegregate and agitate white conservative and moderate churches. King used integrated groups of church visitors to meet with white church leaders to make visible the discussions about race and religion not usually shared in the light of day. According to Marsh, King believed “if people took seriously their identities as Christians, they had no choice but to give up the practices of white supremacy—and not only white supremacy, but also class privilege, resentment, the concession to violence, anything that kept one from sacrificing all for the beloved community, for that interracial fellowship witnessing to the redemptive possibilities of reconciling love.”
Cleveland Sellers was disenchanted with the vision of reconciliation. Sellers worked in SNCC with Stokely Carmichael and became an early champion of a new racial spirituality and nationalistic consciousness called Black Power. Seller’s Christian faith was “profoundly changed” by the spiritualism of black nationalism that rejected interracial cooperation and purged white activists from their ranks.
Marsh’s book provided some seriously differing and often conflicting images of God. It is both troubling and reassuring to see so many firmly held convictions that differ so significantly from each other.
Maybe the real problem is that the people Marsh chronicled so rarely talked to each other, despite their commonalities in time and place. As I listen to the Chauvin trial in Minnesota, so many voices claim that God is on their side and feel justified to say so. Have we understood so little, all these years later?