Religion and Black Power

Congregation members wear “Keep the Faith, Baby” sashes at a church meeting circa 1967, showing support for Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., D-N.Y., who had been stripped of committee chairmanship. Photo by Harry Benson/Hulton Archive via Getty Images.

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 Fruit of Islam: A group of men from the Nation of Islam’s (NOI) security force, Fruit of Islam (FOI), standing in a double line. The Nation’s security force exemplified self-respect, self-discipline, self-defense, and self-sufficiency.

The Fruit of Islam
A group of men from the Nation of Islam’s (NOI) security force, Fruit of Islam (FOI), standing in a double line. The Nation’s security force exemplified self-respect, self-discipline, self-defense, and self-sufficiency. 

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Roderick Terry, © Roderick Terry

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.

Nation of Islam members stand on the steps of Muhammad's Temple No. 2 with bundles of the NOI newspaper 'Muhammad Speaks' under their arms, Chicago, 1965.

Nation of Islam members stand on the steps of Muhammad's Temple No. 2 with bundles of the NOI newspaper Muhammad Speaks under their arms, Chicago, 1965.

Robert Abbott Sengstacke via Getty Images

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
Women of the Nation of Islam: Women’s education emphasized racial pride, cultural tradition, family management, and economic development. 

Women of the Nation of Islam
Women’s education emphasized racial pride, cultural tradition, family management, and economic development. 

Robert Abbott Sengstacke via Getty Images

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.

Interview with Jaramogi Abebe Agyema (born Albert B. Cleage, Jr.), founder of the Shrines of the Black Madonna of the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church (PAOCC) and father of the modern black theology movement, late December 1967/early January 1968.

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Rev. Albert Cleage believed that fighting injustice, racism, and inequality was fundamental to his religious calling. Image: Black Madonna behind Beverly Williamson, caretaker of Central United Church of Christ where Cleage was the pastor. The church was a black power center since Cleage first preached that Jesus was black.

Preaching Jesus Was Black
Rev. Albert Cleage believed that fighting injustice, racism, and inequality was fundamental to his religious calling. Cleage was the pastor at Central United Church of Christ in Detroit, which was a black power center since Cleage first preached that Jesus was black.
 
(L) Black Madonna behind Beverly Williamson, caretaker of Central United Church of Christ.

Graham Bezant/Toronto Star via Getty Images

“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.

(L) Cover of the 50th-anniversary edition of “Black Theology & Black Power,” used with permission of Orbis Books.

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.

Rev. James Hal Cone appears on “Tavis Smiley Presents,” about the State of the Black Church, Detroit, February 2003.

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