The church has traditionally been a fundamental part of African American life, a space which could provide stability, strength, and sanctuary seldom found elsewhere. With the church forming established centres of social and political power, indeed, there seems to be a fundamental link between the church and African American freedom. However, when taking a closer look at the history of this important connection, it becomes clear that racist attitudes and stereotypes were deeply embedded within mainstream religious institutions during the Civil Rights Movement. The infamous events in Selma, Alabama in 1965 provide an interesting case study through which to analyze clerical involvement in the movement.
I call therefore, on clergy of all faiths representative of every part of the country, to join me for a ministers’ march to Montgomery on Tuesday morning, March 9th. In this way, all America will testify to the fact that the struggle in Selma is for the survival of democracy everywhere in our land.
King’s passionate words led clergymen from all over the US and from various denominations to flock to Selma.
King would go on to describe a “pilgrimage of clergymen and laymen of every race and faith pouring into Selma . . .” This physical support of highly influential clergymen was an impressive public demonstration to the government and the nation that mainline religious denominations would not stand for the use of brutal violence against protestors in Selma marching for their constitutional rights.
Clergy members who did not travel south played crucial roles in establishing protest rallies in northern cities to demonstrate the church’s solidarity with protestors in Selma. Places such as Washington, D.C.; Boston; and Harlem witnessed large-scale rallies with over 15,000 participants, including nuns, priests, ministers, and rabbis.
The significance of these protest rallies can be seen in the pressure mounted upon the president to federally intervene in Selma. Following the rally in Washington, D.C., President Johnson was prompted to speak before a joint session of Congress, something not to be taken lightly. Indeed, this was the first time in 19 years that a president addressed Congress on a legislative issue. Here, Johnson denounced the failures of previous civil rights laws and planned a bipartisan bill to be delivered to Congress days later that would “strike down restrictions to voting in all elections . . . which have been used to deny Negros the right to vote.”
Meanwhile denominational religious leaders from across the country urged their ministers to speak of the events in Selma in their weekend sermons, creating a form of wide-reaching political education. Churches urged a sense of religious duty amongst all citizens of America to act in solidarity with Selma, regardless of their experiences with civil rights. By publicly declaring their commitment to Selma in sermons across America, members of the clergy helped galvanize a national outcry against racial injustice in Selma. As history has shown time and time again, the influence of church leaders cannot be underestimated.
Perhaps most importantly, religious leaders met with President Johnson and played a crucial role in the lobbying effort to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A delegation of the D.C.-area clergy and the National Council of Churches forced meetings with the president. Both meetings, scheduled to take 45 minutes, lasted over two hours as religious leaders expressed their discontent at the government’s handling of the protests in Selma and demanded immediate action. Some of these leaders, Robert Spike and Eugene Blake, were invited as “guests of the President in his family box,” as Johnson proposed to Congress the bill which was to become the Voting Rights Act. These invitations suggest Spike and Blake may have influenced his decision making. Though hard to prove, the subsequent passing of the Voting Rights Act verifies that their efforts were not in vain.
Nevertheless, there are important contradictions surrounding clerical involvement in the Selma marches, specifically the inherent segregation and racist attitudes which persisted in the church itself. The aforementioned denominations were predominantly white, and Black clergy members generally only held minor roles. For example, Black Episcopalians comprised only two percent of denominational membership in the early 1960s. The Episcopalian Church’s attempts to integrate Black members into white-controlled parishes in the early 1960s reinforced Black clergy’s subordinate positions to white priests and ministers, as they were repeatedly denied equal access to important roles within the church. These ingrained racist attitudes were manifestly illustrated by the fact that there were no Black clergy involved in the management of the Episcopal groups presiding over inner-city projects in the north, projects which disproportionately focused on African American communities.
Intrinsic racism within the church is also illustrated by reactions to the murders of two clerical activists in Selma. The death of James Reeb, a white minister from Boston, was a catalyst for the clergy’s involvement in Selma. Reeb tragically died from a blow to the head in a violent racist assault following the second protest march. A memorial rally for Reeb in Boston attracted around 20,000 people, whilst other major rallies sponsored by clergy took place in cities across America. Many viewed the minister’s death as an act of martyrdom and some petitioned to have him canonized. The president even arranged for Air Force One to fly Reeb’s wife to Selma. However, the death of Black deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson two weeks earlier did not spark the same national outcry. Jackson was shot in the stomach by a state trooper following a peaceful march from a church to a nearby courthouse in Marion, Alabama. In contrast to Reeb, public reaction in Congress to the murder of Jackson was slight. Two funeral services were held for Jackson, but protests against his death pale in comparison to those held for Reeb.
While white liberal church denominations appeared progressive in their political activism in Selma, they were still devaluing the lives of Black people. These inherent contradictions within the ideology of the church suggest that their intentions behind the march were perhaps less focused on racial equality than presumed. Visually, the presence of the clergy could present a unified religious front, an idealized version of a unified America. Indeed, at the front of the march, King stood next to representatives from a variety of denominations, such as Reverend G. Richard Millard, Suffragan Bishop of the Californian Episcopal Diocese, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. The differences in value placed on white and Black life and segregation within church circles represented the seed of a problem—one that would become central to the church in the late 1960s.