Womanism, Liberation and The Beloved Community: The Role of the Church in Today’s Civil Rights Movement

    I recently had the opportunity to speak at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee (at the famed Lorraine Motel, the site where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated) as part of their Memphis Teach-In, to engage in critical reflection on the role of the church in the Civil Rights Movement, past, present and future.

              This two-day event, co-sponsored by the Memphis Center for Urban and Theological Studies, brought together students, scholars and pastors from around the country, to have thoughtful and engaging dialogue on how the church should respond to our modern-day social injustices, while examining how the church played a pivotal role in the struggles of yesteryear.

In my approach to this topic, I suggested that activism is key and critical to answering the question of “Where Do We Go From Here: The Role of the Church Past, Present and Future in the Civil Rights Movement.”  This, of course, is taken from the title of Dr. King’s 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community.

As a preacher, pastor and womanist, I gave careful consideration to how we build real community, across racial and socio-economic lines. I suggest that a womanist theology of liberation and restoration, one that dismantles racism, patriarchy and sexism is critical to achieving the beloved community that King discussed in his book. I introduce the work of pioneering womanists like journalist and activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who launched an anti-lynching campaign in the late 1800s; civil rights activist Ella Baker, whose intellect and strategic thinking is responsible for much of the success of the 1950s Civil Rights Movement; and finally playwright and activist Lorraine Hansberry, whose contributions beyond "A Raisin in the Sun," gave rise to a movement of liberation and eradicating discrimination against lesbians and queers in the late 1950s and early 1960s. 
   An excerpt of what I shared follows. The two-part video clip is available at: Womanism, Liberation and Theology of Restoration

One hundred years ago, in the summer of 1917, some 10,000 African Americans marched in New York City in what has been called the Silent Parade Civil Rights March. The impetus and motivation for marching was to condemn racial discrimination, lynching of black bodies and the violation of civil rights of black and brown people. It was an effort, that in many ways, harkens the church’s responsibility to lead the way by doing as the prophet Joel proclaims: “Sound the alarm in Jerusalem! Raise the battle cry on my holy mountain.” (Joel 2:1, New Living Translation). Today, in 2017, as we answer the question posited by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his 1967 book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community,” the church must answer with a resounding battle cry that:

          (1) preaches a theology of liberation and proclaims that oppressive forms in any structure within our communities (including but not limited to racial discrimination, violations against black and brown bodies, marginalization of women, immigrants and queer persons) is in direct violation with the ministry, mission and message of the gospel
         (2)dismantles the patriarchal and misogynistic fences that block the liberating work that womanist preachers and womanist ethicists are doing in our communities; and
        (3) reclaims its God-ordained place at the forefront of civil and social issues and reimagines the work that the prophet Micah calls for: “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.” (Micah 6:8, New Living Translation)    

Activism is the spirit in which pioneering womanists and game-changers, such as journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett and playwright, author Lorraine Hansberry, disturbed the status quo by promoting liberation. In an unprecedented movement in the late 1800s, Wells-Barnett believed that racism was a moral issue and that it could be eradicated by addressing it and speaking out against it. While racism had both social and political elements, Wells-Barnett saw the systematized protection of whites in their brutal treatment of Blacks as a clear-cut matter of economics as well. She took her efforts from Memphis, Tennessee throughout the United States. 
Lorraine Hansberry was a one-woman movement who was bold, daring and unafraid to question authority, tackle controversial issues and speak up for queers and lesbians at a time when this demographic was treated with contentious and maligning disregard. Activism is the ground floor of political change. It is direct vigorous action. It’s a movement. Without this movement for justice, things will remain the same. (View part two of the video Womanism Part 2)
 I hope that you will consider your own contributions as part of a faith community and what you can do to eradicate racism, sexism and discrimination in whatever forms these "isms" present themselves. 


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