Religion and Public Life
Early Traditions of Black Religious Women's Activism
In stories about the civil rights movement you hear mostly about
the black ministers. But if you talk to the women who were
there, you'll hear another story. I think the civil rights movement
would never have taken off if some women hadn't started to
speak up. A lot more are just getting to the place now where they
can speak out.
—Septima Poinsette Clark
Black religious women in the Civil Rights Movement embraced a worldview that held racial uplift and social responsibility as central to the value and meaning of religious life. Their practice within the Movement was continuous with this concept of religious duty that pervaded earlier traditions of Black women's religious activism.
Clearly Black religious institutions and Black persons with religious self-understanding played central parts in the movement that sought to expand inclusion and participation of African Americans in U.S. social life. Since the United States segregated and excluded African Americans well into the twentieth century, the role of Black religious institutions as buffers against the cruelties of racism was particularly significant before and during the Civil Rights Era. At that time, Black religious structures continued their antebellum tradition of affirming humanity and providing opportunities to participate in society for descendants of former slaves, who held U.S. citizenship de jure but often were excluded from full exercise of that citizenship.1
Ironically, civil rights literature often recognizes the moral import of the Civil Rights Movement's achievements but neglects to explore