Expanding the Boundaries of Politics: The Various Voices of the Black Religious Community of Brooklyn, New York before and during the Cold War

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Expanding the Boundaries of Politics: The Various Voices of the Black Religious Community of Brooklyn, New York Before and During the Cold War.

Historians writing on African-American history and politics have argued that Cold War hysteria and political repression of left forces marginalized the black left. The result of this marginalization was the removal of a serious progressive force that had the potential of moving black America to a left of center politics. Instead, black America, according to these historians, moved to the right with little dissent. Noted scholar Gerald Horne, for example, contends that the attack on black radicals silenced important radical voices during the Cold War. Because radicals were too weak and received little support from mainstream organizations, narrow Black Nationalism rose to fill the void.(2)

Thomas J. Sugrue argues that anti-Communism during the Cold War "silenced some of the most powerful critics of the postwar economic and social order. Red-baiting discredited and weakened progressive reform efforts. By the 1950s, unions had purged their leftist members and marginalized a powerful critique of postwar capitalism. McCarthyism also put constraints on liberal critics of capitalism. In the enforced consensus of the postwar era, it became Un-American to criticize business decisions or to interfere with managerial prerogative or to focus on lingering class inequalities in the United States."(3)

Historian Manning Marable also contends that as the "Cold War intensified the repression of black progressives increased." As an example of the growing repression, Marable notes that the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois were removed from libraries and institutions of higher learning. The result of such politically repressive acts, according to Marable, was that "black public opinion moved even further to the right." Although Marable notes that black ministers and black churches were not monolithic when it came to political ideology, the black church was nevertheless ambiguous when it came to dealing with black liberation.(4)

These historians have greatly contributed to our understanding of post World War II black America. They have shed light on the Cold War period and its relationship to African Americans. Sugrue has presented a complex account of the reason for deteriorating inner city conditions, challenging earlier works on the underclass that only look at one variable. In particular, Horne and Marable have given a credible explanation for why some black Americans joined America's Cold War effort to stamp out the left. These historians have challenged an earlier historiography that either ignored the significance of black radicals or simply labeled them as tools of the white left and "authenticated" black leaders.(5)

This paper attempts to contribute to this literature by examining another important dimension of the black community that receives little attention when discussing the black left. For the most part, Afro-Christianity has not been a focus of scholars when searching for alternative left voices during World War II and the Cold War period. A closer look at Brooklyn, New York strongly suggests that political ideological debate was not absent in the black community. In fact, there were at least three left ideological positions among the black religious community of Brooklyn. Afro-Christian liberalism, closely associated with New Deal liberalism, was one of the most popular ideological positions among the black clergy of Brooklyn. Pastors of some of the largest black churches in the borough embraced Afro-Christian Liberalism. A small but significant contingent of black Christian radicals made up another ideological group. A third group consisted of black Pentecostals. Until recently, scholars examining black Pentecostalism have, for the most part, ignored its political leanings before and after World War II. However, the ministers, joined by their parishioners were quite visible in the political and ideological debate of the Cold War period. …