The Bible and Civil Rights

By Kevin L. Smith
Feb 4, 2014

The Bible was central to the thought, rhetoric and development of the Civil Rights Movement. This was influenced by the essential role of black churches and preachers in the organization of the movement. Not only was the movement characterized by meetings in churches and the singing of Negro spirituals, it was also marked by biblical themes and biblical rhetoric.

A prime example of popular civil rights rhetoric is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech delivered on August 28, 1963. The speech reflected King’s criticisms and hopes for America set in the language of the prophets of the Old Testament. For example, he said satisfaction would not come until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24). This was familiar language in the Bible-literate America of that day. In the conclusion as King soars into describing his dream, he dreams of a day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together” (Isa. 40:4-5). It should not be taken for granted that the celebrated leader of the Civil Rights Movement was a black Baptist preacher.

The central intellectual strain behind the movement focused on the issue of the equality of all humans, since they were “created . . . in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27), whether black or white. Throughout the black freedom struggle in American history, the biblical teachings on creation and human dignity were foundational to the arguments being put forth, both by scholars and by everyday people. Even those who were illiterate knew from the rhetoric of the movement that God had created all people from one man (Acts 17:26).

In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” written April 16, 1963, King resorts to biblical examples as a defense when he is accused of being an extremist for participating in demonstrations, sit-ins and boycotts. He asked whether Jesus was an extremist when he said “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). He also cites the prophet Amos and the apostle Paul, asking whether their words and actions were not also “extreme.” Finally, reflecting on Jesus’ death on Calvary, he wrote that “Jesus was an extremist for love, truth, and goodness.” In his appeal to white ministers for support, King commonly cited biblical texts and the examples of Christ.

The Bible was central to the energy of the Civil Rights Movement. In planning meetings, preachers and laypersons read from its pages. In public disputes, everyday people quoted its promises and its truth regarding the dignity of all humanity, regardless of skin color. It would not be a stretch to suggest that the Civil Rights Movement would have lacked moral fiber (and one might further say divine blessing) without the underlying truth claims drawn from the Bible.

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