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Abby Dorman

Dr. Johnson
Hist 101
December 11, 2015

The Significance of the Black Freedom Struggle

For many years, Christianity was basically a roadblock to the Civil

Rights Movement. People practiced slavery, segregation, and violent

racism in the name of God. However, there were the few American

Christians who led the movement to abolish slavery and defied societal

norms to fight for equality for their black brothers and sisters. The

struggle for equal treatment didn’t end with the Civil Rights Movement,

and neither should our efforts to further it. Race relations today are far

from perfect, and now it’s our turn as Christians to carry the torch of

human equality lit before us through events such as the Civil Rights


The first step in understanding the significance of the Civil Rights

Movement is learning about the different figures who participated in it.

Each of these men and women has a long backstory that contributes to

their investment in the movement, and it’s impossible to make a

judgment about them without learning about their lives. Even people

who are viewed as antagonists of civil rights deserve the respect of

being studied. Arnold said that, just like when studying any other

subject, understanding history requires context. History is not only “the

past” – it is also an argument, a process of questioning, and a
discovery of a collection of stories. After all, what is history without the

efforts and lives of the individuals involved in it? The lives that made

up the Civil Rights Movement still matter to us today because theirs is

a struggle that isn’t over yet.

It’s impossible to focus on either just national or grassroots

leaders. Martin Luther King, Jr. is probably the most well known

national leader by both Christians and non-Christians alike. His

religious background as a reverend played a significant role in his

philosophy of equality, and he was respected by both blacks and

whites across the country because he called for action from both sides.

In his “I Have a Dream Speech”, he put responsibility on blacks and

whites to achieve equality. He said, “I have a dream that one day on

the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of

former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of

brotherhood.” Through his actions, he set a precedent for Christians

living in his time and still today by showing love and hospitality

through non-violence.

On the grassroots level, Fannie Lou Hamer used those same

values to persist in the fight for the right to vote. She didn’t have any

status recognized by the rest of country, but worked her way from

being the daughter of sharecroppers to a leading activist for the

Mississippi Freedom Summer. Hamer’s story is just as important

because she toiled in the day-to-day local struggles for equality, while
MLK was the face of the national movement. It’s important to study

both of these people not only because their efforts made a huge

difference in the success of the movement, but because we as

Christians can learn from their dedication to biblical values of love and

justice. However, it’s also important to study the men and women of

the Civil Rights Movement who used the name of Christ to justify very

different actions.

For many people, it’s difficult to practice accurate history in the

context of the Civil Rights Movement when it comes to players like KKK

leaders and white supremacists. Christians especially are often quick to

seek to distance themselves from the reality of those actions. Many

people don’t know that KKK founder Sam Bowers claimed that he was

motivated by a pursuit of God’s will. He believed that by attempting to

purge blacks from society, he was practicing the highest levels of

purity and holiness. Some of his statements were even disturbingly

similar to common Christian phrases we still hear today. Describing the

moment of his conversion in Charles Marsh’s book, Bowers said, “All

the horrible experiences of life could be redeemed by the unbounded

goodness of the one true God”. But by examining some of his writings,

learning more about his past from Marsh’s chapter on his life, and

speculating in the silence that history has left us to fill, we as

Christians can understand that Bowers’ actions actually reflected a

faulty theological mindset. Loving someone through history doesn’t
mean that we have to approve of them. The practice of loving Sam

Bowers, among others, allows us to not only have a fuller

understanding of his motivations, but the actions of the KKK as a


Some people might question the necessity of even loving the

KKK at all. I, too, initially cringed at even saying that phrase. By

studying all aspects of the Civil Rights Movement, including the KKK, in

our class, I realized that it’s important to give equal attention to the

good as well as the ugly. Having a thorough understanding of all

aspects of the movement is one step in making sure we avoid the

atrocities that occurred in the first place. We can also study the

successes to see what made them so effective.

As we learned from studying the series of events in the

movement, persistence is key. Whether it was in the Freedom Rides,

Mississippi sit-ins, or the Selma marches, the activists had to endure

violence and persecution before they saw the fruits of their efforts.

During the first Selma march, protestors were gassed and abused by

policemen before they were forced back to the city. They avoided the

temptation to retaliate, and instead make two more attempts at

peaceful marches. In fact, the media coverage brought more men and

women from around the country to march with them in solidarity,

showing that it wasn’t just a Southern struggle. As Christians, we can

learn from the example of all people involved. In the case of violence
today, we can learn from the example of local marchers who refused to

meet violence with violence. Grassroots activists of the Civil Rights

Movement showed that non-violence makes a more powerful

statement than force. We can also learn a lesson about active empathy

from the people who traveled from across the country to participate in

events like the Selma march and the March on Washington. These

people didn’t necessarily have a personal investment in the cause, but

believed in the broader and more important purpose of equality for all

men and women. Viola Liuzzo, a white woman from Detroit, was killed

by the KKK because she participated in the Selma march. Not everyone

is destined to become a martyr for the cause, but her powerful display

of solidarity sets a precedent for the power of unity that transcends


American Christians today have a responsibility to care about the

Civil Rights Movement because of the efforts of the people that went

before us and the implications it has on our daily lives. By studying the

actions of civil rights activists on both the national and local levels, we

are honoring their actions and perpetuating their legacy. If we allow

their stories to slip into the back pages of history, we aren’t fulfilling

our call to love all people well. At the same time, we should look at the

practical implications that their actions had on laws and policies. The

persistence of their non-violence and solidarity was powerful enough to

change deeply rooted practices of racism across the country. However,
these practices haven’t been completely removed, and that’s why our

fight continues today. There will always be injustice and oppression,

but the Civil Rights Movement is one example that Christians can look

to as a display of fighting for the value of all humans as children of