Testimony, Witness, and Civic Life
The Meaning of Black Women's Civil Rights Participation
Thousands of Black women became involved in civil rights activism as a means of continuing their ordinary efforts to live faithfully. Their civil rights work reflected everyday practices of witnessing and testifying through which they brought their religious faith and devotion into public life. The ease with which many women understood civil rights practices as extensions of their religious practice often meant they did not consider questions about appropriate relations of religion and politics that frequently encumber religious people considering engagement in public life. For these women the question was not whether but how they should testify about and witness to their faith in meaningful ways.
Both testifying and witnessing presuppose an encounter with God—the former issuing as speaking about God's work and the latter reflecting behavioral response to God's activity and presence. As conventional practices of some Black religious traditions in the United States, testimony may be understood as preceding witness. Testimony occurs because one, in the vernacular of the tradition, "has to tell somebody." The speech about what God has done arises from the power of an encounter with God that makes it impossible "to keep it to myself." Subsequent to the encounter motivating testimony as speech is the expectation of living in ways that reflect having had the encounter—adjusting or changing one's behavior. As Ella Baker said, for example, "I took the position that you were supposed to change after baptism." Consequently, she tried "to control my temper. I had a high temper.… And so this was my way of