My earliest ideas about African American religion and political struggle come from my first public memories as a child of the South of the late 1950s and 1960s. The civil rights movement entered our home through the televised images of black churches opening their doors for political rallies and the funerals of martyrs. Those pictures were accompanied either by the spirited call-and-response of black religious music or by the mournfulness of its dirges. I saw Southern black people speaking and singing a language of prophecy and praise that I had come to know in the sacred space of a country church in Virginia. There was something both familiar and unsettling in this. The people I saw were without a doubt “church people,” but they were doing and saying things in public that I had never known black people, especially black church people, ever to dare to do.
I was born too late to be part of the movement, but my immersion from afar in its unfolding drama and denouement left in me gratitude and a drive to achieve when its legacy of affirmative action opened the doors of educational opportunity for my generation of black working-class children. The history I was later taught about that movement, and was later to teach, reinforced the religious sounds and images of my childhood memory, preserved in forms aural and visual. For those then and now, here and around the world, who had never set foot in a Southern black church, these images became theirs too. And so for many of them and for me, African American religion and political struggle seemed poignantly and inextricably intertwined.
The power in those images rested in part on the way they conveyed the surprising political potency of African American religion in the South. I say “surprising” because throughout the twentieth century there were spirited debates among varied groups of African Americans about whether religious doctrines, religious people, and religious organizations were a blessing or a curse in the struggle for black freedom and racial progress. Although churches were continually called upon to be savior institutions, historically they were most often criticized for failing in that mission.