By Raegan Johnson
In the wake of Rosa Park’s death, The New York Times published an article about the condition of the civil rights movement today and what it could be in the future. Felicia R. Lee’s piece, “Grieving for Parks, Rights Leaders Ponder Future,” is one of few pieces posing this question. However, what this thoughtful article along with almost all others about Parks overlooks is the intrinsic role of the church in the civil rights movement. No one is asking or looking to see where the African American churches are now in concerns of progressive political movements.
Ms. Lee says that the cohesion of the previous movement had been “has been replaced, in large part, by more dispersed struggles over issues like housing and employment, health care and incarceration.” However, many of the institutions of the movement are still around, those being the churches that housed the movement and organized the community. The Ebenezer Baptist Church is still prominent in Atlanta. Ms. Lee mentions that Condoleeza Rice recently took a foreign dignitary to the 16th Street Baptist Church — the church that infamously became an actual battleground in the movement with the murder of four little girls. It’s possible that these churches only serve as artifacts for a past movement, but it seems that no one is looking to find out. Ms. Lee speaks to one Atlanta reverend who runs a human rights non-profit, but uses no comment from him about the role of the church of religion in today’s human rights campaigns.
Ms. Lee mentions that Hurricane Katrina exposed the division between black and white Americans. Indeed it did, however, it seems as if a large part of the relief effort is coming not from FEMA but from churches who are volunteering countless hours of time and donations to rebuild lives and communities.
It’s certainly true that ostensibly the face the human rights movement has changed from the days of the of the 50’s and 60’s, but with the increasing power and political authority being gained by evangelical churches it’s important to look at why that shift a way from the powerful progressive church has occurred. Many in the Christian Right are now looking for political legitimacy, unlike the civil rights movement where many of the African-American churches served to progress society at large. Dr. King used the power of biblical speech to achieve equality for his people, it seems like the most vocal church movements today seek to condemn much of what Dr. King talked about achieving-that being an open society.
Raegan Johnson is a writer living in New York City.