African American Religion and the Civil Rights Movement in Arkansas

By Newman, Mark | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

African American Religion and the Civil Rights Movement in Arkansas


Newman, Mark, The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


African American Religion and the Civil Rights Movement in Arkansas. By Johnny E. Williams. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003. Pp. xxv, 177. Preface, acknowledgments, introduction, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. $40.00.)

In this study, sociologist Johnny E. Williams argues that by inspiring and legitimating resistance to racial oppression, providing hope, and fostering community networks, religious culture played a direct, independent role in the creation, development, and continuance of the civil rights movement. Although most churches and their ministers, like the bulk of the African-American population, did not participate in the movement, Williams argues that religion was a key factor in motivating and sustaining the small cadre of activists in Arkansas. Churches and church-affiliated clubs provided the movement with organizational resources, and religious beliefs had led those who became activists to recognize inequality as unjust and to challenge oppression with the assurance that God would support them, whatever the dangers.

Williams rejects as inadequate the resource mobilization and political process theories, which relegate culture to a mediating role in producing social movements. While resource mobilization theory holds that people only engage in social action when they have developed sufficient leadership, financial resources, and organizational facilities, Williams claims that religious culture inspired and sustained activism in Arkansas, even when there was little prospect of success and activists lacked either political or economic influence. Similarly, he asserts that activism developed despite the absence of significant political and economic change as stipulated in political process theory.

Williams defines culture broadly "as both content (shared meanings, beliefs, values, symbols, and norms) and the interactive processes that change this content to construct various identities, behaviors, and perceptions of the world" (p. xxii). He contends that religious culture sustained a long tradition of resistance to racial oppression and devotes a chapter to its manifestation during slavery and another to activism from Reconstruction to the late 1930s. In these chapters, he relies on secondary historical sources and sociological theories, few of which provide detailed material about Arkansas. Consequently, Williams, particularly in the chapter on slavery, sometimes has to make his case by inference from developments outside the state. …

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