Freedom Song: Interviews from Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965

Church and Religious Leaders

From the Montgomery bus boycott to the Selma to Montgomery march, Black Christianity and the Black church helped mobilize and inspire activists. The movement also attracted people from outside the Black church whose activism was also driven by their faith.

It is "impossible to conceive of the civil rights movement without placing Black Christianity at its center, for that is what empowered the rank and file who made the movement move," writes historian Paul Harvey.69 Harvey acknowledges the radical secular roots of the movement; however, he maintains that the Black church served both to organize the mass of participants and provide the ideological underpinnings of the struggle.

Reflecting on the success of the Montgomery bus boycott's effectiveness, Fred Shuttlesworth told Callie Crossley, "Here in Montgomery, I say, all the elements came together. There was the idea, there was a man Martin Luther King, Jr., then there was God’s power, and all these come together. And then it’s time for a movement." King attributed the boycott's success to divine intervention: "God had decided to use Montgomery as the proving ground for the triumph of freedom and justice in America."70

Fig. 12. Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth preaching at Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Image courtesy of the Alabama Department of Archives and History. Donated by Alabama Media Group. Photo by Gunter, Birmingham News.
Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth preaching at Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Image courtesy of Alabama Department of Archives and History. Donated by Alabama Media Group. Photo by Gunter, Birmingham News.

Black Christianity dovetailed with the ethos of nonviolence. The activists who embraced nonviolence as a principle maintained that by appealing to their adversaries' souls, they could persuade them of the righteousness of their cause. Moral persuasion was an essential objective of the nonviolent protest advocated by Mohandas Gandhi, who developed the method while fighting colonialism and inequality in India. This was one reason media coverage of the movement was so critical. Coast-to-coast media coverage was one means by which activists sought to awaken Americans to the immorality of segregation. Organizational Activists discusses nonviolence in more detail.

Religious Pluralism and Civil Rights

Outside the Black church, other faith-based communities also contributed to the movement. The civil rights struggle intersected with earlier efforts to promote religious pluralism. In Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise, Kevin M. Schultz argues that in the 1940s and ’50s, Protestants, Catholics, and Jews came together to foster interfaith dialogue and mutual understanding.

Many of the predominantly white organizations that promoted religious pluralism in the 1940s failed to extend their advocacy efforts to African Americans. However, some did. Several Jewish organizations, for example, moved beyond the cause of fostering religious ecumenism to champion racial equality.71 Southern Universalists, Unitarians, and Unitarian Universalists also contributed meaningfully to the movement. Hundreds of Unitarian Universalists took part in the Selma to Montgomery march. Among them were Reverend James Reeb and Viola Luizzo who were both murdered by segregationists for their activism.72

Fig. 13. Orloff Miller during his interview for Eyes on the Prize.
Image of Orloff Miller during his interivew for Eyes on the Prize.

In his interview, Orloff Miller reflects Unitarian Universalists' involvement in the campaign in Selma, Alabama. Along with James Reeb, Miller went to Selma at the request of Martin Luther King, Jr., who sent a telegram asking that ministers of all faiths to come to Selma to take part in the campaign. Miller reflects that the Unitarian Universalist church was, until that time, "very much removed from the Black community—North or South." Yet he expresses pride in his church’s role in Selma: "I was, in some ways, quite ashamed of the fact that Unitarian Universalism was not more involved," Miller says, "but Selma changed all that. Because before we were done with Selma and Selma was done with us, half of our entire denominational ministry was involved."73

The Interviews

Many of the subjects interviewed by the Blackside crew were peope of faith. The following list, however, is limited to those who held official positions in religious organizations:

Ralph Abernathy: Pastor of the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and founding member of the Montgomery Improvement Association and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)

James Bevel: Baptist minister and member of the Nashville chapter of the SCLC

Will D. Campbell: Baptist pastor, Director of Religious Life at the University of Mississippi and executive director of the National Council of Churches Summer Project in Nashville, Tennessee

Joseph Ellwanger: Lutheran minister and pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Birmingham, Alabama. One of the few white southern pastors active in the civil rights movement

Dana Greeley: Unitarian minister and founding president of the Unitarian Universalist Association; participated in the Selma campaign

James Lawson: Reverend and educator in nonviolent activism; worked to desegregate Nashville and helped organize the Freedom Rides

Orloff Miller: Unitarian Universalist minister; participated in the Selma campaign

Frederick Reese: Active in the Selma campaign; became pastor of the Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church in Selma, Alabama, in 1965

C. T. Vivian: Reverend and executive staff member of the SCLC

Wyatt Tee Walker: Baptist minister; one of the founders of the SCLC

A. W. Wilson: Pastor of the Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama

Andrew Young: Pastor active in the Department of Youth Work at the National Council of Churches before becoming a leader within the SCLC

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