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African American Religion and the Civil Rights Movement in Arkansas

African American Religion and the Civil Rights Movement in Arkansas

Johnny E. Williams
Copyright Date: 2003
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    African American Religion and the Civil Rights Movement in Arkansas
    Book Description:

    What role did religion play in sparking the call for civil rights? Was the African American church a motivating force or a calming eddy?

    The conventional view among scholars of the period is that religion as a source for social activism was marginal, conservative, or pacifying.

    Not so, argues Johnny E. Williams. Focusing on the state of Arkansas as typical in the role of ecclesiastical activism, his book argues that black religion from the period of slavery through the era of segregation provided theological resources that motivated and sustained preachers and parishioners battling racial oppression.

    Drawing on interviews, speeches, case studies, literature, sociological surveys, and other sources, Williams persuasively defines the most ardent of civil rights activists in the state as products of church culture.

    Both religious beliefs and the African American church itself were essential in motivating blacks to act individually and collectively to confront their oppressors in Arkansas and throughout the South. Williams explains how the ideology of the black church roused disparate individuals into a community and how the church established a base for many diverse participants in the civil rights movement.

    He shows how church life and ecumenical education helped to sustain the protest of people with few resources and little permanent power. Williams argues that the church helped galvanize political action by bringing people together and creating social bonds even when societal conditions made action difficult and often dangerous. The church supplied its members with meanings, beliefs, relationships, and practices that served as resources to create a religious protest message of hope.

    Johnny E. Williams is an associate professor of sociology at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. His work has been published inSociological ForumandSociological Spectrum.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-584-0
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xvii-2)

    Since the repressive powers of segregation during the 1950s and 1960s made Civil Rights Movement participation a dangerous proposition, most African-Americans in Arkansas were afraid to involve themselves in any form of political activity. However, despite the certainty that they would be harassed by police, lose their jobs, and suffer from a host of other hardships, a small cadre of African-Americans found the courage to join the civil rights struggle to create and sustain a vigorous movement in Arkansas. A unique concern of social movement research involves understanding how dominated social actors mobilize, coordinate, and sustain protest against more powerful...

  6. Chapter 1 Cultural Dimensions of Collective Action
    (pp. 3-19)

    Research has established that religious institutions during the Civil Rights Movement provided African-Americans vital organizational resources for sociopolitical mobilization (McAdam 1982; Morris 1984). As Aldon Morris’s (1984) sociological study of the southern Civil Rights Movement noted, the organizational centrality of the churches in African-American life provided the movement a network of leaders as well as places to meet to develop commitment and to “facilitate mass participation, tactical innovations, and rapid decision-making” (Morris 1984:285).

    I wish to move beyond movement research’s predominant concern with organizational resources to discuss the relationship between culture and collective action by arguing that there is a...

  7. Chapter 2 History of Activist Religious Interpretation
    (pp. 20-40)

    In the literature there is debate regarding whether or not Africans’ religious sensibilities survived the experience of slavery in the United States. Frazier (1964) argues that the effects of slavery destroyed all vestiges of African cultural heritage while Du Bois (1903, 1971), Herskovits (1941) and Holloway (1990) contend that aspects of African culture persisted throughout and beyond slavery. This study takes the latter view. When Africans were uprooted from their homeland and enslaved in colonial America many brought with them views of God’s transcendence that informed their conceptions of reality (McCall 1980). Africans experienced God as an active agent in...

  8. Chapter 3 Church Culture and Sociopolitical Movements during Reconstruction and Post-Reconstruction
    (pp. 41-77)

    Convinced that economic advancement was crucial for their future as a free people, northern delegates at the 1864 National Negro Convention in Syracuse, New York, created a new organization called the National Equal Rights League whose purpose was twofold: “To encourage [among black people] sound morality, education, temperance, frugality, industry, and promote everything that pertains to well-ordered and dignified life: to obtain by appeals to the minds and conscience of the American people, or by legal process when possible, a recognition of the rights of the colored people of the nation as American citizens” (Harding 1981:247). Numerous local League branches...

  9. Chapter 4 Social Activism Preceding the Desegregation Movement in Little Rock
    (pp. 78-99)

    The school desegregation movement in Arkansas is typically presented as if the 1954Brown v. Board of Education of TopekaSupreme Court ruling precipitated its emergence. This chapter describes how enduring religious culture and practices in ethnic institutions helped to facilitate the desegregation movement in Arkansas. Religious culture was fundamentally important in encouraging a cadre of African-Americans to mobilize for educational equalitybeforethe 1957 desegregation of Little Rock Central High School.

    Aldon Morris’s (1984) research on the evolution of the Civil Rights Movement found that various kinds of ethnic organizations and networks were essential in mobilizing movement participation. Most...

  10. Chapter 5 Religion’s Effect on Mobilizing Civil Rights Protest
    (pp. 100-132)

    On May 17, 1954, the United State Supreme Court unanimously ruled inBrown v. Board of Education of Topeka“that segregation ‘solely on the basis of race’ violates the Constitution, regardless of whether schools for Negroes appear to be as good as those for whites” (Arkansas Democrat, May 18, 1954:1A). Arkansas’s public school superintendents reacted to the decision with concern but not alarm. Their responses followed the general theme articulated by C. S. Blackburn, superintendent of North Little Rock schools: “Most of us have felt it (the antisegregation decision) was only a matter of time” (Arkansas Democrat, May 18, 1954:2A)....

  11. Chapter 6 Culture’s Centrality in African-American Women’s Civil Rights Activism
    (pp. 133-148)

    The aim of this chapter is to explain African-American women’s civil rights activism in Arkansas within the framework of this study. Though scholars have repeatedly documented the importance of community organizations like churches in the initiation of social protest (McAdam 1982; Morris 1984; Lincoln and Mamiya 1990), researchers have only recently begun to evaluate how institutions mobilize women’s collective action. While sociological research (Barnett 1993; Higginbotham 1994, 1997; Robnett 1997) increasingly considers culture’s centrality in facilitating African-American women’s activism, its importance remains underexamined. This chapter explores how cultural processes endemic to indigenous institutions (that is, churches, families, and other local...

  12. Chapter 7 Theoretical Conclusions
    (pp. 149-157)

    In the above quotations, Malcolm X and Steve Biko indirectly suggest that culture, especially ideas and social relations, is important in mobilizing political action. Through culture, individuals form various social relations through which they construct meanings, feelings, and interpretations that help them traverse their social environment. What is apparent is that it can no longer be suggested, as previous scholars have done, that culture plays a peripheral role in social movement mobilization. Aldon Morris’s (1984) research on the Civil Rights Movement identifies clergy social networks as important elements in movement mobilization, his work’s organizational bias leads him to assign culture...

  13. Appendix
    (pp. 158-158)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 159-161)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 162-172)
  16. Index
    (pp. 173-177)