The first chapter of W.E.B. Du Bois’s classic 1903 text The Souls of Black Folk is titled "Of Our Spiritual Strivings." It begins by posing the dilemma of blackness in America this way: "between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question… How does it feel to be a problem?" Du Bois goes on to offer a history of America that arrives at a core spiritual striving for black people: the desire to be fully recognized citizens with equal franchise and unfettered opportunity to secure property and pursue human fulfillment.
Though Du Bois was an empirical social scientist with a somewhat ambivalent relationship to religion; he framed black political efforts as a spiritual yearning.
Today I am reminded of the connection between religious fervor and African American political efforts. March 7, 2010, is the 45th anniversary of the Selma voting rights demonstration, which has become known as Bloody Sunday. On Bloody Sunday, more than 600 non-violent protesters were attacked by local Alabama police who assaulted the crowd with tear gas and night sticks.
Bloody Sunday was the definitive turning point in the struggle for African American voting rights in the South. Just one week after the attack, President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress and called for passage of the what became the 1965 Voting Rights Act. As he argued for the bill, LBJ intoned, in his famous Texas accent, "we shall overcome." It was an act of solidarity and great courage. It was also an act of principled partisan recklessness that initiated the GOP’s southern strategy and delivered the former Confederate states to Republican control.
The protesters and the president who stood with them were great American patriots who changed the country despite the unlikeliness of their alliance and the risks posed by their endeavors. For that, we remember them.
However, Bloody Sunday is more than an anniversary of heroic and political significance. The anniversary also evokes particular religious imagery that is meaningfully connected to the ways that African American religion and political efforts intersect.
Blood is a literal description of the battered bodies of demonstrators. Blood also harkens to a specifically Christian messianic tradition that designates the salvific and redemptive properties of unearned suffering willingly embraced for the good of others.
The black church is often cited as an interconnected element of African American politics. Sociologist Aldon Morris points to Southern, black, Protestant churches as key organizational resources for the civil rights movement. Political scientist Fred Harris argues that black Christianity contributes to political efficacy and activism by creating,“a sense of competence and resilience, inspiring them to believe in their own ability, with the assistance of an acknowledged sacred force.”
These observations about the structural and psychological resources of black, Christian traditions only capture part of the work of African American religiosity. Another element is more firmly rooted in the Christology itself, which claims a messianic role for those who suffer at the hands of the state.
This theological perspective puts the struggle for liberation at the center of both the historic ministry of Jesus of Nazareth and the experiences of black people in America. It pinpoints suffering, struggle, resistance and freedom as core elements of the Christian experience.
This theology explicitly links the cross to the lynching tree and perceives the historical torment of Jesus as directly tied to the contemporary brutality faced by black Americans.
I am not suggesting that only a specific Christology, available only to black Americans is capable of motivating social movement activity against injustice. The sacrifices of many liberal, white, Jewish Americans who were deeply committed to racial freedom struggles is evidence against any narrow claim. Many Jewish allies were harassed and beaten. Some were even murdered for their civil rights efforts. Though a black Baptist minister, Martin Luther King, Jr. was deeply affected by the spiritual teachings of the Gandhi’s Hinduism and the Quaker pacifism of Bayard Rustin.
As a Unitarian Universalist I am not personally attached to a particular theological claim about Jesus as messiah. But I am emboldened by these claims as an African American woman who seeks to honor the legacy of black struggles for equality. In this sense I fully embrace and lean heavily on Jesus. I acknowledge and honor those who found in Jesus a representation of divine love that understood suffering and embraced those who were trampled by the powerful.
Whatever our religious commitments, it is worth pausing for a moment on this day to honor those who did, so recently and so willingly, spill blood as a sacrifice for our collective good. Bloody Sunday evokes the kind of reverence typically reserved for Communion.
These are the Americans whose bodies were broken for us. We pause today in rememberance of their sacrifices.