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Religion and the Civil Rights Movement

Religious groups and churches became increasingly involved with the efforts of CORE in the quest for civil rights. Throughout the 1960’s churches were vandalized and targeted for their involvement in the civil rights movement especially in the South. Throughout the violence in and tension in the Southern churches became the main targets for violence and vandalism. This is seen with the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist church in Birmingham Alabama. This church was the fore front for many well known leaders in the civil rights movement such as Martin Luther King Jr. On September 15, 1963 a white man was seen placing a bomb underneath the steps of the church ignited a blast that killed four young African American girls who were attending Sunday school.

Birmingham Church Bombing on September 15, 1963

Many Baptist, Methodist and Jewish leaders were present in the civil rights movements there were also other Christian denominations such as Catholics and Lutherans that were taking part in changing ideas and beliefs of the church regarding race relations and civil rights. The Lutheran church contributed to the civil rights movement in New York City in recognizing racial discrimination within the church. They put forth a statement to its members and parishioners that those who practiced their beliefs and also followed racism were immoral and against the motives of the church. The Catholic Church is known for its set if rules and conservative and specific views, but in the sixties they did embrace the fight against racial discrimination and a change.The creation of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice (NCCIJ) brought forth a change in the Catholic Church and recognizing the fight for civil rights for African Americans. The NCCIJ originated in New York City and formed a group to fight racial injustice within the community and Catholic Church. While the creation of groups such as the NCCIJ helped to bring forth the issues of civil rights and racism in religion and the Catholic Church religious leaders were also addressing issues in the parochial schools of the church.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. conducts a speech at riverside Church in New York City

Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail

"Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty." Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In a response to a statement made by some white Alabama clergyman, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a letter from jail after being arrested for planning a non violent protest. His fellow clergyman statend that social injustices did exist, but that the battle against racial injustices and discrimination should be fought in the courts and not by the public. They also implied that demonstartions were being led by "outsiders" which was a direct reference to Martin Luther King jr. and his actions were "unwise and untimely." Martin Lither King Jr.'s response letter stated that without non violent protests and actions civil rights could not be achieved and direct actions were nececssary for African Americans to achieve the rights they deserved as people. The role of religion in the civil rights movement was essential especailly with leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., but otehr religious leaders had various views as read in the " A Call For Unity" wriiten by the eight clergymen in Alabama. The Letter for Birmingham Jail set forth the reasons and need for nonviolent protests and the support of religious leaders from various religions.

"One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence."

Martin Luther King Jr. in Birmingham jail

Religion on Staten Island

Religion on Staten Island also played a role in the civil rights movement. The various religions and their collaboration with CORE organized demonstrations and protests to support the movement such as with the rally to protest the Birmingham Church bombing. On September 23, 1963, the group organized a rally at Prall Intermediate School that focused on the Birmingham Baptist Church bombing in Alabama therefore linking the Southern struggles to supporters in the North and more specifically on Staten Island. There were several religious leaders from various backgrounds and churches that supported the civil rights movement and the overall efforts of groups such as CORE on Staten Island. Religion began to play a large role in the civil rights movement on the island and began ties with the churches such as the Unitarian church and Pastor Horace Colpitts. There were also several other leaders and church organizers who supported and were involved in the movement on Staten Island, such as Reverend William A. Epps of Saint Phillips Baptist Church, Reverend William H. Latham of Mariner’s Harbor Reform Church and Rabbi Marcus Kramer who was the leader if Temple Israel Reform Congregation. These three religious leaders were among the first to join the advisory board of CORE. On Staten Island Rabbi Marcus Kramer played a large role in organizing and supporting civil rights and especially CORE and its efforts. Physical and religious differences may have been present between the rabbi and CORE leader Richard Prideaux, but he still encouraged their endeavors to change Staten Island and get rid of the stigma of it being a racially divided and most racist borough in New York.

CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) members swing down Fort Hamilton Parkway, Brooklyn, toward 69th St. ferry on trek to Washington


Primary Sources:

Janson, Donald, Churchman Fight for Racial Office: Vote 2 to 1 against Closing New York Headquarters. New York Times, April 16. 1964, pp. 25, COPT=REJTPTFhY2QmSU5UPTAmVkVSPTI=&clientId=10775.

Montgomery, Paul L. Diverse Groups Join in Protest; Participants Range from Pacifists to Far Leftists. New York Times, Nov. 28, 1965, pp. 86.

Church Supports Jailed Minister; Harrington Protest Backed at Fair Backed ‘With Administration’. New York Times, May 11, 1964, pp.28.

Lutherans Warn Against Racism; Guilty Members Recital of Prayer Called Blasphemy. New York Times, Feb. 29, 1964, pp.24.

Prideaux, Ric. Unpublished Autobiography.

Overton, Cleve. In the Shadow of the Statue of Liberty: A Memoir of a Black American. Diaspora Voices Press, 2005.

Buder, Leonard. Catholics Start Race Bias Drive. New York Times, August 26, 1960, pp.9

Herbers, John. Negroes Pour Out Into Streets in Shock and Anger at Bombings. New York Times, September 16, 1963, pp. 26.

Secondary Sources:

Montheith, Sharon. American Culture in the 1960s. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008.

Sugrue, Thomas J. Affirmative Action from Below: Civil Rights, the Building Trades and the Politics of racial Equality in the Urban North, 1945-1969. The Journal of American History, vol.91, no.1 (2004), pp.145-173.

Meyer, Steven. As Long as They Don’t Move Next Door; Segregation and Racial Conflict in American Neighborhoods. Lanham; Rowman and Littlefield, 2000.

Taylor, Clarence. The Black Churches of Brooklyn. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Koehlinger, Amy. L. The New Nuns: Racial Justice and Religious Reform in the 1960s. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Weil, François. A History of New York. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004, pp.259- 286.

Mcleod, Hugh. The religious Crisis of the 1960s. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

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