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14 Allison Calhoun-Brown 14 The Black church is unique among Civil Rights organizations in that it is not a single organization, nor was it founded with the express purpose of addressing racism and discrimination. Black church is a term that aggregates all predominantly Black Christian congregations whose primary purpose is to meet the spiritual needs of their parishioners. Yet perhaps no institution has been more central to the Black community or done more to uplift the race. The fact that thousands of disparate groupings can be referenced with meaning as a single unit is a testament to the integral role that the church has played. Chronicling the origins of the Civil Rights Movement, Aldon Morris concluded that the Black church functioned as the “organizational hub of Black life” and as the “institutional center” of the Civil Rights Movement.1 This was not a new role. In large part due to the exigencies and indignities of slavery, for many people the Black church antedated even the Black home and family. This fact alone bears witness to the special place that the Black church has had in its community. W. E. B. Du Bois noted that “this institution peculiarly is the expression of the inner life of a people in a sense seldom true elsewhere .”2 E. Franklin Frazier contended that the enslavement of African people, because of the organization of labor and the extreme forms of social control, destroyed the possibility of social cohesion based on traditional African kinship or any system (e.g., common language) which may have emerged on plantations but for slavery. According to Frazier, the Christian religion provided a new basis for social cohesion.3 While other scholars such as Gayraud Wilmore have rejected the degree One Allison Calhoun-Brown Will the Circle Be Unbroken? The Political Involvement of Black Churches since the 1960s Will the Circle Be Unbroken? 15 to which Frazier believes slavery destroyed social cohesion and African culture , few dispute the pivotal role the church has played in the very survival of African American people. Indeed, Benjamin E. Mays and Joseph Nicholson identified the Christian religion as a technique that the slaves developed to mitigate the dehumanization that they were forced to endure. This function continued long after slavery had ended, with the church providing a wide array of educational, social, business, and political opportunities.4 The church became the center of community life, and the preacher became the leader of the community. Writing in the 1940s, Gunnar Myrdal observed that “the chief function of the Negro church has been to buoy up the hopes of its members in the face of adversity and to give them a sense of community.”5 He asserted that this role was unique to Black churches because so many other channels of activity outside the church were closed. In the colder and more critical words of Mays and Nicholson, “It is not too much to say that if the Negro had experienced a wide range of freedom in the social and economic spheres, there would have been . . . fewer Negro churches.”6 Nonetheless, the reality is that for the vast majority of African Americans opportunities were severely constricted. As the result of the elimination of Black people from the political life of the American mainstream, the Black church became the main arena of their political and social activities. According to Eric C. Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya, “It has no challenger as the cultural womb of the Black community.”7 Most forms of musical, artistic, and dramatic expression as well as colleges, banks, insurance companies, lowincome housing, and political leadership find their genesis in the Black church. Writing in 1964, E. Franklin Frazier asserted that “for the Negro masses in their social and moral isolation in American society the Negro church community has been a nation within a nation.”8 And, when the subnation called for integration, it was the Black church that “provided the ideological framework through which passive attitudes were transformed into a collective consciousness supportive of collective action.”9 This collective action resulted in significant changes for the Black community and for American society, culminating in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, both of which substantially ended the codification of racism in the United States. These laws, at least formally, laid the basis for the full integration of African Americans into mainstream society . As Robert C. Smith observed in this new legal framework, protest politics began...


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