When you are in the throes of doing what is right for righteousness’ sake, little time is taken to appreciate or envision the historical imprint your actions may have on the country. You don’t stop to ponder how your actions will alter the course of your life.
In college, I found myself watching and reading about events that were being characterized as civil resistance and civil disobedience. I often went to God in prayer to ask how I could be an instrument of change in what was happening in Alabama at the time. I didn’t realize then that the civil rights movement would become so richly commemorated and celebrated during Black History Month.
It is crucial to continue to remember not only those days, but all the ideas and events that have shaped the history of African Americans and our nation. And none is more important than this: the place of God in all of it.
In 1976, as part of the United States bicentennial, President Gerald R. Ford officially recognized Black History Month, calling upon America to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Long before President Ford’s official recognition of Black History Month in 1976, African American, Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson and prominent, African American minister Jesse E. Moorland founded an organization, known today as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). The ASALH was dedicated to researching and promoting achievements by black Americans. The organization sponsored the first national Negro History Week in 1926, selecting the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, February 12 and February 14, respectively.
Woodson said, "If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated…”
By the late 1960s, thanks in no small part to the civil rights movement and a growing awareness and pride in black heritage, Negro History Week had evolved into Black History Month.
The nonviolent protests and movements of today are inspired by the strategies of the civil rights movement. Despite the separation of decades, I see great similarities in the cries for justice and against police brutality. What is obviously different today is this: the civil rights movement was visibly God-centric in its motivational speeches; there were many calls for prayer and appeals to the biblical justification of the movement.
In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written April 16, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.”
As I look at the genesis of the African American and note our heroic journey traveled as a people—through enslavement, oppression, rejection and segregation—the greatest constant, on the path to the freedoms enjoyed today, was the presence of God-loving, God-fearing, and God-worshiping men and women.
Black history reveals that slaves suffered undeserved dehumanizing treatment as they toiled at Southern plantations in the blazing sun. And yet, they worshiped God. They met secretly for Bible classes. The timeless Bible stories of bondage, slavery, and the suffering of Christ evoked a response of faith and hope which were expressed in lyrics like:
My father, how long,
My father, how long,
My father how long,
We’ll walk de miry road Poor sinner suffer here
Where pleasure never dies. And it won’t be long,
We’ll walk de golden streets And it won’t be long,
Of de New Jerusalem. And it won’t be long,
Poor sinner suffer here.
My brudders do sing De praises of de Lord.
We’ll soon be free,
De Lord will call us home.
We’ll fight for Liberty
When de Lord will call us home.
Former slave Harriet Tubman, the 19th-century “Moses,” never lost a person along the Underground Railroad and attributed her success to her staunch faith in God. Just as she began to engineer one of her freedom quests, she would pray, “I’m going to hold steady on You, an’ You’ve got to see me through.”
On the broad shoulders of slaves, African Americans of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s stood for justice and marched for equality. Every time “We Shall Overcome” was sung, it became a declaration of faith in God’s ability to empower his people. As historian Albert Raboteau stated, “The civil rights movement became a religious crusade.”
Churches played a pivotal role in the movement. Churchgoers relied on God’s guidance as they fought racism, hatred, discrimination, and injustice. Sunday morning pulpits became soapboxes to commingle God’s Word with inspiration and information regarding civil rights initiatives. Similarly, marches took on the characteristics of church services with prayers, sermonettes, and songs.
As student body president of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia, during some of the most intense days of the struggle for civil rights, I joined my fellow students in an insatiable urge to be part of something that we knew was bigger than ourselves. We knew the words of King—“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”—were absolute. We chartered buses and traveled from our campus in Atlanta to Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, to lend our voices, our minds and our bodies, if necessary, to fight for the civil rights of all African Americans. We were added to the number of thousands upon thousands who played just a small part in bringing about a big change.
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The same Jesus who heard the songs of the slaves and the chants of the civil rights marchers will hear the prayers of those who now cry out for justice throughout our country. It is imperative that religious leaders continue to advise all to pray for peace and protest with purpose.
Black lives have always mattered to God. However, as black history shows, it’s not by power nor by might but by the spirit of God—the wisdom, authority, power, and presence of the Most High God—that freedom, equality, and justice will come.
Every day is history in the making. As African Americans continue to march and rally in response to the senseless deaths of young black men at the hands of the police, the poor communities victimized by government choices, and whenever overt racism rears its ugly head, in all this, God must continue to be sought for counsel, direction, and protection. With God’s help, we shall overcome.
Bishop Charles E. Blake, is the Presiding Bishop of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), the world’s fifth largest denomination, and pastor of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ, in Los Angeles California, with a membership in excess of 25,000 parishioners.