restricted access Chapter 3 “THE MESSAGE CAME ON A BEAM OF LIGHT”: Women in Religious Groups
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50 Chapter 3 “The Message Came on a Beam of Light” Women in Religious Groups A strong belief in God proved to be yet another motivating factor in drawing female reformers into civil rights activism. Women coming from both Jewish and Christian backgrounds echoed the claim that since all human beings belonged to a universal brotherhood, the unjust treatment of one of God’s children constituted a sin against God. Memphis’s activist community took no exception to this rule. Following in the footsteps of female activists from the nineteenth century, a number of women central to Memphis’s civil rights movement began their journey into social reform from a deep-seated religious faith. Although many historians have explored the connection between religious conviction and reform work, Anne Firor Scott initially isolated the direct connection between white southern churchwomen and civil rights activism, situating that connection as far back as the antebellum period. Scott’s significant contribution stemmed from her work in the postbellum South, when “race work” occupied the careers of reformers concerned about the restrictive race laws that appeared on southern law books during Reconstruction.1 An understanding of the nexus of civil rights work and religion occupied a central place in the work of two influential civil rights activists, Anne Braden and Lillian Smith, and the catalyzing role of religion in their activist lives serves as a useful framework in examining the impact of religion on Memphis’s female activists. While the two women had somewhat different careers—Braden’s devoted to political organizing Women in Religious Groups 51 and Smith’s devoted to writing—both women located the first awakenings of a progressive consciousness within their early religious development in childhood. Anne Braden, a native of Anniston, Alabama, spent the bulk of her activist career working for the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF), a group involved in a multitude of projects committed to racial justice and labor organizing. Although employed as a staff member of SCEF throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Braden began to focus her energies and writings primarily on race while she worked as a journalist in Louisville, Kentucky, in the late 1940s.2 Braden began contributing to the Louisville Times in 1947. Shortly after her move to Kentucky, she facilitated discussions on segregation in the local Department of Christian Social Relations of the Episcopal Church. Braden noted in her autobiography that she recognized, albeit subconsciously, that the God she learned about in her Episcopal church did not resemble the God of her upper-class parents and their white southern neighbors. This early realization, Braden maintained throughout her life, propelled her into the illustrious career she enjoyed within the civil rights movement.3 Lillian Smith’s motivation behind civil rights work bore similarities to Braden’s. An eloquent writer, Smith recounted in her autobiography the confusion she experienced as a young, white, southern woman, born in 1897, and thus growing up in a region and country that defined very limited roles for women in society. Among the confusing elements she struggled with during the indoctrination process she called childhood were the lessons she learned in her church about God and love. Smith grew up in an extremely devout, Southern Baptist household, where she participated in Bible readings and church affairs regularly, and where, according to her parents’ assertions, God lived along with Smith and her family. According to Smith, the first lesson southern children learned was that all God’s children were one in God’s love, but each one had her/his (segregated/separate) place.4 Smith believed the powerful force of religion gave both sides of the segregation debate considerable strength.5 Both Smith and Braden found the empowering message of Christianity liberating for both the black and white faithful, yet many southern Protestant churches resisted integration. Numerous surveys exist on the official policies of southern churches, black and white, toward integration as the civil rights movement began. Women in Religious Groups 52 An extensive historiography chronicles the strong tradition of the African American church and the pivotal role that institution played in both the modern civil rights movement and the larger struggle for African American freedom from Emancipation onward.6 The southern white religious community, on the other hand, relied on individual church groups for any social reform work. Perhaps the most progressive of the Memphis Protestant denominations , the Unitarian Church—of which there was only one congregation in the city in the 1960s—participated consistently in...


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