Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished ManuscriptAbstract: Although traditionally outsiders in Americas civil religion, leaders in the Civil Rights Movement utilized appeals to civil religious rhetoric and the ideals shared by the larger population to advance their cause. The appeals were made in such a way as to lay claim to the idea that segregation and other forms of discrimination were violations of the American civic creed. In reality, they argued, the African-Americans who were discriminated against held more closely the tenets of the civic religion than did the white southerners who were perpetuating the discrimination.
This interpretation sheds light not only on the methods used in the Civil Rights Movement, but also on the process of change in the content of the American civil religion. American civil religion necessarily expands when either: 1) there evolves a large section of the population that is traditionally outside of the boundaries of the ruling civil society and that must be incorporated into the civil society to maintain peace, or 2) there develops a recognition in the mainstream population that there is a severe violation of ideals of the civil religion which needs to be rectified. In the case of the Civil Rights Movement, both of these conditions are met.
Publication Type: Internal PaperAbstract: Jessie Henderson began his first preaching gig at age thirteen. A seasoned veteran in the pulpit by twenty, Henderson was grateful for the support of older preachers, but he recognized that “some is jealous because I’m young.” Although he was devoted to the church, Henderson acknowledged, “It’s mostly old folks that pay church a lot of attention.” Even Henderson had his reservations. He had worked most of his life as a sharecropper, and then joined the National Youth Administration in 1937, preaching in his spare time. Although he still aspired to be a fulltime preacher, Henderson also wanted economic independence. “I’m not inferior like lots of Negroes are to white folks,” he explained, “I ain’t bowing down to them all the time.” When asked which leaders he most admired, Henderson chose a local businessman and a black landowner who employed a white family on his farm. No clergy made the cut.
Jessie Henderson was one of hundreds of young African Americans who talked at length to interviewers about his attitudes toward religion, friendship, family, race, sex, marriage, and more in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Fisk University sociologist Charles S. Johnson compiled those interviews into Growing up in the Black Belt, a 1941 study of black youth in the rural South. Johnson’s report on “Youth and the Church” is brief, but the transcripts of the interviews reveal the complicated religious worlds of black young people in the Depression South. In one breath the youth complained, “I can’t understand what the preacher’s talkin’ about half of the time. Seems like to me he’s just sayin’ a lot of words that don’t make sense.” But in the next, they talked about singing in choirs, taking leadership roles in Sunday School classes and Bible Bands, and developing a new sense of self-worth when they “got religion.” Many young black southerners spoke of Christianity as empowering even as they scorned local church leaders, whom they often deemed excessively deferential and unwilling to question white authority.
This paper explores the religious worlds of black youth in the rural South at the end of the Great Depression. Responding to both the turmoil of the Depression and the hope inspired by the New Deal, southern youth in the 1930s questioned the value of deference to whites and expressed their admiration for community members who operated independently from white power structures. Rural preachers were often bi-vocational, many of them too poor to claim economic independence. Some youth ridiculed their messages and sought role models in business, politics, and entertainment rather than the church. At the same time, those youth remained active in church, often without pressure from parents. A quarter-century later, they watched a new generation of young people challenge the clerical leadership of the modern civil rights movement. Johnson’s Depression-era interviews reveal that the rebellion of this new generation was not so much a departure from their parents’ own youthful attitudes as an extension of them.