Religion and the Civil Rights Movement

Religion gave many African Americans, among them Fannie Lou Hamer, the inspiration and strength to participate in the civil rights movement, and the movement often organized through the church. Nevertheless, the institutional black church and its leaders generally stood back from the movement, particularly before its enlargement in the early 1960s. In both rural and urban Mississippi, prominent whites made donations to the churches of more amenable African American preachers and gave such clergymen prestige by recognizing them as black community leaders. A few African American ministers, most notably Greenville’s H. H. Humes, the president of the 387,000-member General Missionary Baptist State Convention, accepted payment from the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission as informants. While few black clergymen endorsed Jim Crow, pragmatism made most pastors wary of challenging it. Often dependent on whites for day jobs, ministers were reluctant to risk their incomes and their physical safety as well as that of their churches. Predominantly rural, Mississippi lacked a cadre of urban-based activist clergymen. In more prestigious churches, economically insecure middle-class blacks constrained ministers who might otherwise have supported the movement.

Although small in number, a few clergymen, such as R. L. T. Smith of Jackson, Aaron Johnson of Greenwood, and Tougaloo College chaplain William A. Bender, were active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which expanded in post–World War II Mississippi. Belzoni minister George W. Lee, a vice president of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership and an NAACP member, was shot and killed in 1955 for encouraging black voter registration.

Most of Mississippi’s white clergymen and laypeople favored segregation. The national Episcopalian, Methodist, Southern Presbyterian, and Southern Baptist denominations supported the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, but their Mississippi branches, except for the Episcopalian Church, refused to follow them. Several prominent Baptist and Presbyterian state leaders condemned their denominational bodies for endorsing Brown, and many Protestant churches adopted segregationist resolutions, in some cases claiming biblical justification. Laypeople also organized segregationist pressure groups. Within a year of issuing a January 1963 statement that opposed racial discrimination, all but seven of the twenty-eight young white Methodist signatories had left their pulpits under pressure. Although the Catholic Church was nominally integrated, Bishop Richard O. Gerow, like most other moderate church leaders in Mississippi, remained silent about segregation.

In the early 1960s, activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality, many of them black southerners, recruited movement participants through church networks in which women played a major role. Congregants sometimes pressured resistant ministers and members to open their churches to the movement. Bishop Charles F. Golden of the Nashville-Carolina Area in the Methodist Church’s all-black Central Jurisdiction directed Mississippi’s black Methodist churches to allow civil rights meetings. In 1963 black churches and ministers played a crucial role in protests in Jackson.

African American churches, within and outside the movement, suffered racist attacks across Mississippi, especially during the 1964 Freedom Summer Project. Although the state’s leading denominations formed a biracial Committee of Concern that helped rebuild forty-two black churches, white denominations opposed the Delta Ministry, a long-term civil rights project begun by the National Council of Churches in 1964. More black churches became open to the movement, but their ministers remained cautious. However in Greenwood, Rev. William Wallace of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, Rev. M. J. Black of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Father Nathaniel Machesky, a white Catholic priest, led a mostly successful boycott in the late 1960s. In 1969 black and white religious leaders formed the Mississippi Religious Leadership Conference and called for acceptance of imminent public school desegregation.

Further Reading

  • John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
  • Carolyn Renee Dupont, Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945–1975 (2015)
  • Carter Dalton Lyon, Sanctuaries of Segregation: The Story of the Jackson Church Visit Campaign (2017)
  • Charles Marsh, God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (1997)
  • Michael V. Namorato, The Catholic Church in Mississippi, 1911–1984: A History (1998)
  • Mark Newman, Divine Agitators: The Delta Ministry and Civil Rights in Mississippi (2004)
  • Mark Newman, Journal of Mississippi History (Spring 1997)
  • Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995)
  • Randy J. Sparks, Religion in Mississippi (2001)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Religion and the Civil Rights Movement
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date April 4, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update June 14, 2018