African American churches provided spiritual and practical support for civil rights advocates. The militant rhetoric of the Black Power movement troubled many ministers, but others supported demands for fundamental and immediate change.
The Nation of Islam reinforced Black Power philosophy by insisting that black Americans have control over their own businesses, schools, and community organizations. The Nation described the philosophy of the civil rights movement as “turn the other cheek” and criticized the movement for its integrationist goals. By 1964 the Nation of Islam had grown to over 300,000 members and distributed 500,000 copies a week of its newspaper, Muhammad Speaks. The Nation’s philosophy, especially as conveyed by Malcolm X between 1957 and 1964, inspired a commitment to black liberation, including the development of black-owned businesses and a rejection of integration.
The Nation of Islam as a Cultural Force
The Nation of Islam provided an essential foundation for the black power movement. The Nation emphasized black pride, economic independence, and the rejection of American popular music and entertainment. It insisted on individual discipline and self-defense against physical and psychological violence perpetrated by white society. Its theology focused attention on the historic role of people of African descent and opposed the perpetuation of white supremacy.
Black Power is not foreign to Yahweh and Yahweh is not foreign to Black Power ... The cause of Justice is and always will be in strict accordance with the Will of God.Sister Mary Roger Thibodeaux 1972
Authors of Liberation Theology
Rev. Albert Cleage’s “The Black Messiah” portrayed Jesus as a black revolutionary leader, a role model for contemporary black nationalists. Professor James Hal Cone explored the historical role of black churches in supporting black liberation. He criticized white churches for their traditional toleration of slavery and white supremacy.
“Liberation is not an afterthought, but the very essence of divine activity,” asserted Rev. James Hal Cone in 1970. Cone, a professor at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, connected his daily experiences as a black man to his theology of black power. Four years earlier, the National Committee of Negro Churchmen had endorsed black power by pointing out “the gross imbalance of power and conscience between Negroes and white Americans.”
Cone's 1967 book, “Black Theology and Black Power,” was one of the first systematic presentations of black theology. In the preface of the first edition, Cone wrote, “This book was my initial attempt to identify liberation as the heart of the Christian gospel and blackness as the primary mode of God’s presence. I wanted to speak on behalf of the voiceless black masses in the name of Jesus whose gospel I believed had been greatly distorted by the preaching and the theology of white churches.”*
*From “Black Theology & Black Power” by James H. Cone. Copyright © 1997, 2018 by James H. Cone. Published by Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY 10545.
This text changed the lives of thousands and thousands of young brothers and sisters of all colors who were wrestling with the question: what does it mean to be Christian in a turbulent time in which the vicious legacy of white supremacy was being contested, pushed back as it were?Cornel West From the introduction of “Black Theology & Black Power,” copyright © 1997, 2018 by James H. Cone. Published by Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY 10545.