Religion has been the motivation for civic engagement among black people for their entire existence in America. It hasn’t been the only motivation, and Christianity hasn’t been the only religion to bring influence, but it is clear that Christianity has played a central role in motivating black people to stand up against oppression. The interesting thing though is Christianity has sparked and inspired different forms of resistance throughout the years. It has inspired hundreds of black leaders throughout history in America, and has given them reason to resist with tactics anywhere from absolute nonviolence to an aggressive form of violence. These leaders have been captivated by a variety of aspects and stories within the bible.
Some have felt more drawn to Old Testament stories and figures in the bible and have seen themselves as being called by God to do what they did. Others are more moved by the teachings and principles in general and use that to guide their actions. Some spend more time focusing on the Old Testament while others have spent more time in the New Testament. Regardless where within the text people have felt gripped by God and called to do his work, it’s clear that the scriptures have wielded an immense amount of power and influence over the hearts and minds and actions of the black community since their exposure to the bible. I want to specifically compare and contrast between Denmark Vessey, Marcus Garvey, and Martin King and look how religion touched them and how it motivated their activism.
Vessey was the earliest of the three and made his impact in the early 1800s while blacks were still being held as slaves. He was very intelligent and spent large amounts of time studying the scriptures as Wilmore notes, “he was engrossed in the study of the Scriptures and brought to his investigations some interpretations that were decidedly unorthodox and possibly African or West Indian in origin.” (Pg. 82 Black Radicalism). Although slavery had been going on for quite some time, it still makes sense that Vessey would have been influenced by African culture and thoughts, while the other two thinkers were at least 100 years later than now and would be in a culture that would be even less African. This adds to how Vessey comes away from the bible with a different theology than the other two.
Vessey’s theology was heavily influenced by the Old Testament and the stories of the Israel people and their leaders, “Denmark Vessey, with an intuitive sense of the mystical and a good grasp of Scripture, must have seen parallels between the children of Israel – after they crossed the Jordan and stood before the cities that barred their way into the Promised Land – and the situation of blacks. Had they not been brought across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World for a purpose?…….All of the connections with the Old Testament story were obvious.” (Pg. 82 Black Radicalism). Vessey clearly saw a similarity between the Israel people and black people. He even started to see himself as being called to liberate black people in similar ways to how Old Testament leaders lead the Israelite people to freedom, “Without their God they could accomplish nothing. Denmark Vessey was convinced that the same was true for the slaves he had been called to lead to freedom.” (Pg. 82 Black Radicalism). The Old Testament influenced Vessey in his thoughts about what God was calling him to do, but it also influenced him on how to do it. In the OT, there are plenty of examples of the Israelites resisting oppression with the use of violence and uprising. Naturally, Vessey came to see this as a way God chooses to liberate his people.
Seeing how God instructed Israelite leaders to lead their people to engage in violence and insurrection to fight off oppression, Vessey felt God calling him to lead slaves in an insurrection for their freedom. Vessey was convinced that the violence and killing that would ensue was not only righteous and justified, but would be necessary and the only possibility, “As for the killing, not only did they have the biblical precedent before them and believed themselves to be instruments of God’s terrible wrath, but they also knew, as David Walker pointed out later, that once they had begun, only total extermination, as lamentable as that may seem, could hope to succeed in such an impossible situation. They could expect no mercy if they failed.” (Pg. 85 Black Radicalism). Vessey’s theology clearly led him to believe that violence was not only a legitimate form of resistance to oppression, but was sometimes the way God brought justice to this world and so could be sanctified. Our other two thinkers took a different perspective on how to engage in resistance.
Marcus Garvey made his impact in the early to mid-1900s and was one of the most impressive black leaders in the history of America, “leading the most successful mass movement of blacks in the history of the United States.” (pg. 175 Black Radicalism). By this time, blacks were now free and were beginning to be more and more assimilated into white culture. As a result, the black church was becoming more deradicalized. Garvey was heavily influenced by Booker T. Washington, who was highly engaged with white culture and had undoubtedly been influenced by it. Garvey was also heavily influenced by Henry Turner who was much more critical and hostile to white culture than his contemporary Washington.
Garvey was similar to Vessey in that he too had a less mainstream understanding of God, “Black ministers were disturbed by Garvey’s religion, and yet many thought that his position was basically sound and made sense for blacks.” (Pg. 177 Black Radicalism). Garvey’s theology was mostly influenced by the idea from folk religion that, “God helps those who help themselves.” This was a large motivation for Garvey to mobilize blacks and get them active. If they want God to intervene and bring relief to their suffering, then they better get active because God isn’t going to help the lazy but rather those who are working.
Garvey differed from Vessey in a large way though. He mainly advocated for peaceful resistance compared to Vessey’s violent soaked insurrection desires. He also was pushing a different sort of resistance. He was working to liberate blacks by relocating them, not by standing up and fighting against the oppression they were facing, “It was his claim that the work he was doing would liberate blacks by peacefully removing them from the United States, thus saving the country from miscegenation and destructive race war.” (Pg. 176 Black Radicalism). We see here in this quote that Garvey was hoping to avoid violence but that also the way to liberate blacks without violence was to remove them from the United States. A large reason why Garvey wanted to avoid violence was because of his deep sense that blacks and whites were to love each other on the basis that they were all humans and needed each other in order for both to flourish.
Garvey also held a theological position that involved a lot of explicit “blackening” of Christianity, which motivated Garvey for wanting to move blacks away from white America. Wilmore writes that, “He preached that inasmuch as man was made in the image of God, black persons ought to visualize a black God.” (Pg. 178 Black Radicalism). This is something that couldn’t be done in such a white dominated and racist nation like America. If blacks were going to connect to God and see how much God was involved in their humanity, they needed to be in a place that was void of white oppression and white infiltration into their belief systems. This is why removing blacks would be such a good thing for the spiritual lives for blacks. They will be able to see how much God relates and cherishes their blackness if they are able to leave separated and untainted from white control.
The last figure I want to look at is Martin King who was prominent in the 1950s-60s. At this point of time, emigration was something that wasn’t being pushed like Garvey pushed for it, but separation was definitely an avenue blacks were enticed by, which Martin vehemently fought against. Malcolm X was also extremely prominent at this time period and not only advocated separation but also violence if necessary to liberate blacks. Martin was also emphatically opposed to violence as well. With the presence of leaders pushing separation and violence, this made King be clear and uncompromising in his commitments to nonviolence and integration.
He is similar to the first two figures in the sense that his religion played a pivotal role in his understanding of civil engagement and resistance. “Martin King’s dream was defined by two movements of American Protestant Christianity. These two movements – the black church and white, Protestant liberalism…. they both reinforced the central assumption of King’s dream: that America was a Christian nation which had failed to live out the true meaning of its destiny.” (Pg. 121 Martin and Malcolm). Martin’s theology of justice and belief that America was a Christian nation not living up to its ideals are what drove him to fight incessantly for the liberation of blacks. But it was his theology of love which directed the way he went about his resistance to oppression, which ultimately is what makes him different from the two figures already mentioned. Cone writes that, “King also advocated that love, expressed in nonviolent protest, was the only means of achieving justice, which he equated with desegregation.” (Pg. 64 Martin and Malcolm), and again emphasizes Martin’s focus on love when he tells us, “But Martin’s definition of love as agape was the heart of his perspective on nonviolence.” (Pg. 130 Martin and Malcolm).
It’s Martin’s devotion and commitment to love, which makes him committed to demonstrating resistance in a nonviolent way. This commitment to love was grounded in his understanding that God loved all people, and if we love God then we must love what He loves, which is all people. That’s why Cone writes, “Martin’s absolute commitment to nonviolence was a matter of faith. He just did not believe that a world fit for human habitation could be created with violence.” (Pg. 130 Martin and Malcolm). Martin saw violence as a means of resistance not just impractical, but also against his understanding of God and so it couldn’t be a viable option. This is radically different to Vessey who saw that God could use people to engage in violence to bring about his will. When compared to Garvey though, Martin seems to be similar to him. They both saw love as extremely important in guiding one’s actions and that an understanding of love between all of humanity was necessary based on God’s love for people. This reverence of love also motivated both to go about resistance in a peaceful manner. It’s curious to me though, that they split and advocated for opposite futures for the black people in America. Garvey worked to separate blacks from whites, while Martin wanted to integrate blacks and whites.
It would seem that it was Martin’s ‘American Dream’ which would be at the heart of his difference with Garvey. Martin saw America as a Christian nation with Christian beliefs in its founding documents, it’s just that America has failed to live up to these ideals. So, Martin felt that if shown the love God commands, this would change the hearts of racists whites and spur them on to pursue and uphold the godly ideals in their constitution that would bring equality to all peoples of race. Also, Martin’s understanding of loving people like God, meant that blacks couldn’t just leave, but had to stay and integrate with whites and form relationships and get to know each other, “Rather King’s theology was embodied in his life, that is, in what he did and said about justice and love between blacks and whites and about God’s will to realize the American dream, reconciling, as brothers and sisters, the children of former slaves and former slaveholders.” (Pg. 123 Martin and Malcolm). Garvey didn’t have such a robust understanding of an “American Dream” or conception of a godly love and so didn’t see the need for blacks to stay with whites.
After looking at these three figures, it is clear that religion was what pushed and pulled them to become activists. It’s also clear that their form of activism was directly linked to their understanding of God and Christianity. Although they all worshiped the same God and read the same bible, they all left with different and contrasting theologies that lead to different understandings of activism.
We have Vessey who was potentially influenced by non-Christian culture in his interpretation of the bible, and got a lot of theological understanding and influences of resistance from the Old Testament. This resulted in a theology that understood blacks as being in an analogous situation as the Israelites and thus allowed and sanctified violence since it would be God bestowing his wrath on the unrighteousness of whites. This contrasts starkly with seminary-trained Martin whose theology was heavily influenced by liberal Protestantism and black folk Christianity, and resulted in an intense focus on love which only allowed for nonviolent resistance. Vessey’s violence also differs him from Garvey who was looking for a peaceful solution to the race problem. But Garvey differed from both with his theological understanding that God only helps those who help themselves, which was the motivating belief for Garvey to work so hard. Whereas Vessey’s motivation was that he felt called by God and Martin whose commitment to love and thus justice pulled him to activism. Garvey then differs even further with Martin with his pursuit of separation in contrast with Martin’s deep sense of integration as being aligned with God’s will. These stark and vivid contrasts can either push us to see some sort of deficiency in Christianity itself or at least in one of these figures’ theology and interpretation of the bible. It also could push to see that Christianity and God are complex and complicated and can be manifested and followed in multiple different ways while still being authentic and genuine.