Perry, “May We Forever Stand”

9781469638607

I was a twenty-something in Washington, DC, when I first heard a choir perform “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at an outdoor concert in Rock Creek Park, and the song has stuck in my head ever since. The melody, by John Rosemond Johnson, is dignified and stirring, and the words, by his brother, James Weldon Johnson, are moving. Also known as the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice” has a large place in the history of the civil rights movement. It serves as a reminder of the role religion played in that movement, and, more generally, the role religion has played in our national experience.

A new book from the University of North Carolina Press, May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem, by Princeton scholar Imani Perry (African-American Studies), tells the song’s story. The title refers to the final verse:

“Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.”

The publisher’s description follows:

The twin acts of singing and fighting for freedom have been inseparable in African American history. May We Forever Stand tells an essential part of that story. With lyrics penned by James Weldon Johnson and music composed by his brother Rosamond, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was embraced almost immediately as an anthem that captured the story and the aspirations of black Americans. Since the song’s creation, it has been adopted by the NAACP and performed by countless artists in times of both crisis and celebration, cementing its place in African American life up through the present day.

In this rich, poignant, and readable work, Imani Perry tells the story of the Black National Anthem as it traveled from South to North, from civil rights to black power, and from countless family reunions to Carnegie Hall and the Oval Office. Drawing on a wide array of sources, Perry uses “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as a window on the powerful ways African Americans have used music and culture to organize, mourn, challenge, and celebrate for more than a century.

Thompson, “Richmond’s Priests and Prophets”

In May, the University of Alabama Press will release Richmond’s Priests and Prophets: Race, Religion, and Social Change in the Civil Rights Era by Douglas E. Thompson (Mercer University). The publisher’s description follows:

UA-StackedNameplateDouglas E. Thompson’s Richmond’s Priests and Prophets: Race, Religion, and Social Change in the Civil Rights Era presents a compelling study of religious leaders’ impact on the political progression of Richmond, Virginia, during the time of desegregation. Scrutinizing this city as an entry point into white Christians’ struggles with segregation during the 1950s, Thompson analyzes the internal tensions between ministers, the members of their churches, and an evolving world.

In the mid-twentieth-century American South, white Christians were challenged repeatedly by new ideas and social criteria. Neighborhood demographics were shifting, public schools were beginning to integrate, and ministers’ influence was expanding. Although many pastors supported the transition into desegregated society, the social pressure to keep life divided along racial lines placed Richmond’s ministers on a collision course with forces inside their own congregations. Thompson reveals that, to navigate the ideals of Christianity within a complex historical setting, white religious leaders adopted priestly and prophetic roles.

Moreover, the author argues that, until now, the historiography has not viewed white Christian churches with the nuance necessary to understand their diverse reactions to desegregation. His approach reveals the ways in which desegregationists attempted to change their communities’ minds, while also demonstrating why change came so slowly—highlighting the deeply emotional and intellectual dilemma of many southerners whose worldview was fundamentally structured by race and class hierarchies.

Pratt, “Selma’s Bloody Sunday”

When people think of Christian activism in law and politics today, they almost always envision activism from the right. But this has not been the case, historically. The most important social and legal movement in twentieth-century America was the Civil Rights Movement, which had strong roots in the Black Church. Although some Christians opposed the movement, and although its sources were non-religious as well, its ecumenical Christian appeal, very much in the American tradition, was important in gaining the necessary support of white moderates.

Last month, Johns Hopkins released a new book on the movement, Selma’s Bloody Sunday: Protest, Voting Rights, and the Struggle for Racial Equality, by historian Robert A. Pratt (University of Georgia). The publisher’s description follows:

9781421421599On Sunday afternoon, March 7, 1965, roughly six hundred peaceful demonstrators set out from Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in a double-file column to march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital of Montgomery. Leading the march were Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Upon reaching Broad Street, the marchers turned left to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge that spanned the Alabama River. “When we reached the crest of the bridge,” recalls John Lewis, “I stopped dead still. So did Hosea. There, facing us at the bottom of the other side, stood a sea of blue-helmeted, blue-uniformed Alabama state troopers, line after line of them, dozens of battle-ready lawmen stretched from one side of U.S. Highway 80 to the other. Behind them were several dozen more armed men—Sheriff Clark’s posse—some on horseback, all wearing khaki clothing, many carrying clubs the size of baseball bats.”

The violence and horror that was about to unfold at the foot of the bridge would forever mark the day as “Bloody Sunday,” one of the pivotal moments of the civil rights movement. Alabama state troopers fell on the unarmed protestors as they crossed the bridge, beating and tear gassing them. In Selma’s Bloody Sunday, Robert A. Pratt offers a vivid account of that infamous day and the indelible triumph of black and white protest over white resistance. He explores how the march itself—and the 1965 Voting Rights Act that followed—represented a reaffirmation of the nation’s centuries-old declaration of universal equality and the fulfillment of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

Selma’s Bloody Sunday offers a fresh interpretation of the ongoing struggle by African Americans to participate freely in America’s electoral democracy. Jumping forward to the present day, Pratt uses the march as a lens through which to examine disturbing recent debates concerning who should, and who should not, be allowed to vote. Drawing on archival materials, secondary sources, and eyewitness accounts of the brave men and women who marched, this gripping account offers a brief and nuanced narrative of this critical phase of the black freedom struggle.

Cline, “From Reconciliation to Revolution”

This month, the University of Carolina Press releases “From Reconciliation to Revolution: The Student Interracial Ministry, Liberal Christianity, and the Civil Rights Movement,” by David Cline (Virginia Tech).  The publisher’s description follows: 

Conceived at the same conference that produced the Student Nonviolent Coordinating 9781469630441Committee (SNCC), the Student Interracial Ministry (SIM) was a national organization devoted to dismantling Jim Crow while simultaneously advancing American Protestant mainline churches’ approach to race. In this book, David P. Cline details how, between the founding of SIM in 1960 and its dissolution at the end of the decade, the seminary students who created and ran the organization influenced hundreds of thousands of community members through its various racial reconciliation and economic justice projects. From inner-city ministry in Oakland to voter registration drives in southwestern Georgia, participants modeled peaceful interracialism nationwide. By telling the history of SIM–its theology, influences, and failures–Cline situates SIM within two larger frameworks: the long civil rights movement and the even longer tradition of liberal Christianity’s activism for social reform.

Pulling SIM from the shadow of its more famous twin, SNCC, Cline sheds light on an understudied facet of the movement’s history. In doing so, he provokes an appreciation of the struggle of churches to remain relevant in swiftly changing times and shows how seminarians responded to institutional conservatism by challenging the establishment to turn toward political activism.

Houck & Dixon (Eds.), “Rhetoric, Religion, and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965: Volume 2”

Last month, Baylor University published Rhetoric, Religion, and the5505 Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965: Volume 2, edited by Davis W. Houck (Florida State University) and David E. Dixon (St. Joseph’s College). The publisher’s description follows.

Building upon their critically acclaimed first volume, Davis W. Houck and David E. Dixon’s new Rhetoric, Religion, and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954–1965 is a recovery project of enormous proportions. Houck and Dixon have again combed church archives, government documents, university libraries, and private collections in pursuit of the civil rights movement’s long-buried eloquence. Their new work presents fifty new speeches and sermons delivered by both famed leaders and little-known civil rights activists on national stages and in quiet shacks. The speeches carry novel insights into the ways in which individuals and communities utilized religious rhetoric to upset the racial status quo in divided America during the civil rights era. Houck and Dixon’s work illustrates again how a movement so prominent in historical scholarship still has much to teach us.

Dupont, “Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975”

Next month, NYU Press will publish Mississippi Praying: Southern White 9780814708415_FullEvangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975, by Carolyn Renée Dupont (Eastern Kentucky University). The publisher’s description follows.

Mississippi Praying examines the faith communities at ground-zero of the racial revolution that rocked America. This religious history of white Mississippians in the civil rights era shows how Mississippians’ intense religious commitments played critical, rather than incidental, roles in their response to the movement for black equality.

 During the civil rights movement and since, it has perplexed many Americans that unabashedly Christian Mississippi could also unapologetically oppress its black population. Yet, as Carolyn Renée Dupont richly details, white southerners’ evangelical religion gave them no conceptual tools for understanding segregation as a moral evil, and many believed that God had ordained the racial hierarchy.

 Challenging previous scholarship that depicts southern religious support for segregation as weak, Dupont shows how people of faith in Mississippi rejected the religious argument for black equality and actively supported the effort to thwart the civil rights movement. At the same time, faith motivated a small number of white Mississippians to challenge the methods and tactics of do-or-die segregationists. Racial turmoil profoundly destabilized Mississippi’s religious communities and turned them into battlegrounds over the issue of black equality. Though Mississippi’s evangelicals lost the battle to preserve segregation, they won important struggles to preserve the theology that had sustained the racial hierarchy. Ultimately, this history sheds light on the eventual rise of the religious right by elaborating the connections between the pre- and post-civil rights South.

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