Spirituality in the Civil Rights Movement
Wednesday, December 2, 2020 from the Center for Action and Contemplation, and Fr. Richard Rohr OFM
The deeply spiritual foundation of the Civil Rights movement is often underemphasized. The movement that sought political and legal equality for Black Americans was grounded in faith. The devout Christian commitment of virtually all its leaders, from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Fannie Lou Hamer to John Lewis, inspired them to work for the dignity and equality of all. Rosemarie Freeney Harding (1930–2004), the wife of civil rights leader Vincent Harding (1931-2014), recalls the power of the Holy Spirit working in the movement during that time.
One of the most exciting things for me about being in the freedom movement was discovering other people who were compelled by the Spirit at the heart of our organizing work, and who were also interested in the mysticism that can be nurtured in social justice activism. We experienced something extraordinary in the freedom movement, something that hinted at a tremendous potential for love and community and transformation that exists here in this scarred, spectacular country. For many of us, that “something” touched us in the deepest part of our selves and challenged us in ways both personal and political.
There was an energy moving in those times. Something other than just sit-ins and voter registration and Freedom Schools. Something represented by these signal efforts but broader. As I traveled around the country in the sixties, it seemed to me that the nation—from the largest community to the smallest—was permeated with hope; the idea that people can bring about transformation; that what we do matters. . . .
Martin and Coretta [King] and Anne Braden and Ella Baker and others like them had a beautiful effect on people who spent time with them. Living and working in their presence hastened changes in your own thoughts, your reactions, your priorities; even if you weren’t always cognizant of the shift. . . . Being constantly in the presence of people who lived so fervently in the power of nonviolence, who believed and acted from the understanding that love and forgiveness were essential tools for social justice; being surrounded by people like that fed those commitments in me, in many of us. And it infused the nation. . . .
For a lot of people in the Movement, our participation gave us a craving for spiritual depth. . . . Sometimes not knowing what was right or wrong in a situation, they had to be quiet about it. Had to go somewhere and just meditate about it. Pray on it. . . .
Rosemarie Harding’s description of the Spirit working within the young people of the Civil Rights movement reminds me of my time with the New Jerusalem Community where we also sang, prayed, and trusted that God would speak to us—and God did!