Achieving the Black Social Gospel
The phase of the black freedom movement usually called “the civil rights movement” – 1955 to 1968 – was incomparably beautiful and searing in modern US history. It abounded with noble visions, resounded with magnificent rhetoric, and ended in nightmarish despair.
It put on global display the ravages of racism and racial caste in the United States. It rebelled against a century of racial abuse that followed upon 246 years of chattel slavery. It sang and preached and marched for a better world. It won legislative victories and had a profound impact on US American society, but it failed to break white supremacy.
The symbol of the movement, Martin Luther King Jr., became a global icon by assailing his country’s racial prejudice, condemning its economic injustice, opposing its war in Vietnam, standing with the poor and oppressed, expounding a vision of liberation, and being assassinated for doing so. King soared so high that he tends to overwhelm anything associated with him. Yet the tradition that best describes him and other leaders of the civil rights movement has been strangely overlooked.
Long before King burst upon the national scene in December 1955, there was an African-American tradition of social gospel Christianity that preached social justice politics in the same way that King later personified. Historically it emerged from four groups that asked what a new Abolitionism would look like after Reconstruction was abandoned.
The first group identified with Booker T. Washington and his program for political accommodation and economic uplift. The second group espoused the nationalist conviction that African Americans needed their own nation. The third group advocated protest activism for racial justice, strongly opposing Booker Washington. The fourth group implored against factional division, calling for a fusion of pro- Washington realism and selective anti-Washington protest militancy.
All four of these ideological factions existed before W. E. B. Du Bois emerged as the intellectual leader of the protest tradition and influenced black social gospel ministers such as Reverdy C. Ransom and Richard R. Wright, Jr. The full-fledged black social gospel emerged mostly from the third and fourth groups. It combined an emphasis on black dignity and personhood with protest activism for racial justice, a comprehensive social justice agenda, an insistence that authentic Christian faith is incompatible with racial prejudice, an emphasis on the social ethical teaching of Jesus, and an acceptance of modern scholarship and social consciousness.
This tradition of social justice religion, until recently, was wrongly neglected. King did not come from nowhere. The founders and their successors had much at stake in claiming that black churches should support social justice politics and social gospel theology. Many of them would today be justly honored and their names familiar had scholars not ignored the black social gospel for decades.
When the black social gospel is recognized as an important tradition, certain long-regnant conventions about black religious history no longer hold up. Supposedly the early black social gospel had only a few proponents, it was a mere imitation of white social Christianity, and it did not produce significant public intellectuals. Supposedly it had little influence, so it was not an important tradition, or perhaps not a tradition at all. Supposedly it was a species of something best left for dead – Progressive-era idealism.
A Font of Progressive Theology
On the contrary, the early black social gospel had numerous proponents. It was a self-standing tradition with its own identity and integrity. It produced public intellectuals. It had a tremendous influence by providing the theology of social justice that the civil rights movement espoused. And it remains important as a wellspring of black theology, liberation theology, progressive Christianity, postcolonial criticism, and every form of Christianity that appeals to the witness of the civil rights movement.
The black social gospel had many blinders and deficiencies. It was led almost entirely by male ministers, and few of them advocated for the public agency of women. Ransom, William Simmons, Henry McNeal Turner, and Howard Thurman were notable exceptions. King was not. Ida Wells-Barnett, Nannie Burroughs, and Pauli Murray are major figures in the black social gospel story, and Molly Church Terrell, Ella Baker, Diane Nash, and Fannie Lou Hamer made important contributions to it. But all fought constantly against being excluded, and Baker’s bar from a leadership role in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference symbolizes exactly the clerical-gender problem at issue. For similar reasons, black social gospel leaders had no progressive inklings concerning gay and lesbian sexuality, a subject that Adam Clayton Powell Sr. and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. vehemently opposed from the pulpit. Pauli Murray, had she attended Abyssinian Baptist Church when either Powell preached about sexuality, would not have felt welcome. She spent decades puzzling over what excluded her most from the career she deserved: being female, or black, or gay, or queer.
The black social gospel thus had deficiencies on the very issues that roil churches today. Nevertheless, it commends our attention because it defied white America’s refusal to relinquish white supremacy or even discuss white racism.
During his lifetime King became, like Gandhi, a global symbol of nonviolent resistance to oppression. After he was gone he left an incomparable legacy and an immense void. Well into the 1970s, King Day celebrations called for a King holiday. King’s reputation in white America climbed ever higher, putting a national holiday in reach. People who had spurned or reviled King while he lived now claimed to admire him as an icon of racial integration; many “forgot” having reviled him. The campaign for a King holiday lost a House of Representatives vote in 1979 and won a veto-proof majority in Congress in 1983, compelling President Reagan to sign it. The campaign fixed on “I Have a Dream” imagery and race-blind ideals. King’s views about capitalism and militarism were still out of play, smacking of way-out-there Leftism, best not mentioned. It was considered bad form to dwell on such things or what he actually said about Black Power; only reactionary warhorses did that. To win the iconic status that King deserved, he had to be domesticated, and was.
King became safe and ethereal, registering as a noble moralist. His later emphasis on economic justice was routinely ignored, obscuring why the social gospel mattered. Before the King era, the black social gospel had not been recognized as a credible or important force of social Christianity. After he was gone, it still got little credit as a fullthroated tradition, much less as the shaper of King’s idea of prophetic Christianity. But without the black social gospel, King would not have known what to say when history called on December 3, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama.
The King movement must be continually renarrated. It is our greatest historical treasure – but so often robbed of its relevance. I feel deeply my numerous inadequacies in narrating its significance and yet the imperative to try. King’s social gospel radicalism is distinctly valuable as a weapon against white supremacy – a structure of power based on privilege that presumes to define what is normal. The fact that so much history has to be overcome to make the point confirms the necessity of trying.
Gary Dorrien is Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Religion at Columbia University. He is the author of The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel (2015) and the forthcoming Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel (2017), both published by Yale University Press. This article is based on themes from both volumes. His many other books include Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit: The Idealistic Logic of Modern Theology, which won the Association of American Publishers’ PROSE Award in 2013.