Faith and Freedom in America's Black Power Era
"Black Power," the black liberation theologian James Cone wrote in his classic Black Theology and Black Power (1969), "even in its most radical expression, is not the antithesis of Christianity, nor is it a heretical idea to be tolerated with painful forbearance. It is, rather, Christ's central message to twentieth-century America."1 Like Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton's Black Power: The Politics of Liberation (1967), Black Theology and Black Power sought to explain Black Power's origins, meaning, and content. Unlike his contemporaries, however, Cone's intellectual context and approach were deeply molded by theological questions, as well. For him, Black Power was not just an urgent political and social necessity. It was also opportunity and obligation for Christian churches to recapture their moral compass.
Written at a time when Black Power in America was simultaneously at its zenith and facing unremitting backlash from both the United States government and a wide majority of American citizens, Cone argued that it was inexcusable for Christians to sit on sidelines or, worse yet, ally themselves poorly. Responding to accusations from conservative and moderate coreligionists alike that Black Power was extremist, racist, counterproductive, and "the work of the Antichrist," Cone countered that Black Power was not, in fact, any of those things. Instead, it was a logical manifestation of Christian ethics and justice—very much Christ's teachings in action. Dismissing or deriding Black Power put the soul of the church at risk. "Unless," he argued, "the empirical denominational church makes a determined effort to recapture the man Jesus through a total identification with the suffering poor as expressed in Black Power, that church will become exactly what Christ is not."2 [End Page 111]
Although Black Power and Black Theology was a revelation at the time of publication and remains important today, the actual, historically realized relationships between Cone's two conceits—Black Power and Black Theology—remain mystified. The religious foundations of the 1950s and 1960s southern civil rights movement and the centrality of Christian discourses within it are everywhere in evidence, and are well-documented in the historiography. By contrast, the relationships between Black Power, the Christian church, and religious discourses are not. While studies such as Angela Dillard's Faith in the City: Preaching Radical Social Change in Detroit (2007) and Patrick Jones's The Selma of the North: Civil Rights Insurgency in Milwaukee (2010) center churches that served as sites of Black Power organizing and clergypersons who were allies of the movement, the ways that Christian ethics and ideas aided and influenced Black Power remain unclear.
This is, in part, a simple product of history. Many people who embraced Black Power's ethics and aesthetics did so having either never taken to the civil rights movement's religiosity, or having become disillusioned with what it could do to mitigate entrenched socioeconomic inequality, sprawling urban slums, and police and other forms of social violence. And many of those Black Power activists who did think religiously identified Malcolm X—who, despite his own close proximity to Christianity as a minister's son, publicly and repeatedly assailed Christianity as a counterrevolutionary force—as an intellectual forbear. Indeed, major figureheads in the Black Power movement themselves explicitly rejected the Christian church as irrelevant or worse. As Black Panther Party cofounder Huey Newton put it in a 1971 apologia for the Party's longstanding dismissal of the church, "As far as the church was concerned, the Black Panther Party and other community groups emphasized the political and criticized the spiritual. We said the church is only a ritual, it is irrelevant, and therefore we will have nothing to do with it."3
And yet it would be wrong to think that the Christian church, its ideas, and its discourses had no bearing on Black Power—or, at least, to think that that is a universal truth. Two new books—Kerry Pimblott's Faith in Black Power: Religion, Race, and Resistance in Cairo, Illinois and Martin L. Deppe's Operation Breadbasket: An Untold Story of Civil Rights in Chicago, 1966–1971—explore how Christian actors and ethics lent themselves to quests for black political, social, and economic power during the Black Power era of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Pimblott's Faith in Black Power explores the development, ethics, and actions of a Black Power movement that coalesced in the downstate Illinois border town of Cairo in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with particular attention to the ways that Christian discourses and actors shaped it. Pimblott, a University of Manchester lecturer, focuses on an organization known as the United Front, which originated as an umbrella group of civil rights organizations before [End Page 112] eventually shifting toward Black Power militancy. As it did, Pimblott argues, it cultivated "a distinctive grassroots black theology that served to legitimate their turn from civil rights liberalism to black power nationalism"–retaining the earlier civil rights struggle's faith-based idioms and ideas and refashioning them around a new militancy (pg. 8).
Faith in Black Power begins with a long look at the development of Cairo's political economy, religious cultures, and racial arrangements from the early nineteenth century forward into the twentieth, with Pimblott relying on borderlands studies to explain the town's unique rhythms. Tucked into Illinois's southernmost tip, adjacent to both Kentucky and Missouri, Cairo arose at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers in the early 1800s, and quickly emerged as an important hub of commerce—its river access allowing goods to flow into and out of it with ease, to and from the four directions. As a stopping point for cotton and other southern products, Cairo's fortunes were intimately entangled with the slave economy of the South. Indeed, slaves built the town's first structures, and despite periods of black political power, Cairo's identity as "the Deep South City of the North" was frequently reflected in its racial politics throughout its history.
Pimblott's central focus is the black freedom struggle that emerged and how black theology shaped it. As in the southern movement, the church provided important leadership during Cairo's early civil rights era, and served as an organizing hub and network that bound people of different class and generational backgrounds into common cause. Usually working through church-affiliated networks, throughout the early 1960s activists labored to desegregate Jim Crow schools, pools, and other public facilities that maintained a rigid color line.
By late in 1966, however, the movement's focus was changing, with a young Baptist minister and movement veteran named Charles Koen leading the charge. Under the leadership of Koen, a Cairo native, the local civil rights network began working to challenge worker exploitation and job discrimination through boycott campaigns, hoping to build a more stable economic foundation for poor black people and migrant workers. The movement's radicalizing tilt was catalyzed still further in 1967, when an urban rebellion erupted in Cairo after a young black soldier was killed while in police custody. Led by residents of the Pyramid Courts housing projects, rebels targeted white-owned businesses for destruction, smashing windows and throwing Molotov cocktails before the National Guard was dispatched to restore order, and claiming their actions as political protests against economic deprivation and discrimination. "In one fell swoop," Pimblott writes, "a new generation of black working-class youth had shifted the terrain of struggle," with the movement subsequently reorienting away from integration and toward "economic nationalism and black electoral power" (pp. 101, 103). [End Page 113]
Leaders of the Black Power struggle that emerged after the rebellion understood the historically significant role that the church had played in the local black freedom struggle, and sought to recruit activist clergy who could help make the relationship between Black Power and black Christianity symbiotic, rather than antagonistic. Koen and the United Front (UF) stood at the vanguard of that effort. Koen recruited black clergy and churches to the movement, and grafted Black Power political ideologies together with faith-based arguments about Black Power's moral urgency. The relationships between church and Black Power that he helped forge proved to be both material and intellectual. National and regional faith organizations provided more than a half a million dollars in grants to UF over the course of its existence, and churches served as crucial organizing sites for UF projects. Meanwhile, Koen referred to the Bible as a "'handbook for the revolution,' insisting that he personally looked 'to the Bible for divine guidance'" (p. 128). United Front leaders framed everything from armed self-defense to the establishment of anti-capitalist community cooperatives as biblically justified and morally necessary, even adopting as their symbol an image of a revolver sitting atop a King James Bible—"the gun was for your protection and the Bible was for your direction," as one activist explained (p. 144). Christian theology and Black Power were, Pimblott convincingly demonstrates, fused together completely in the UF's activities.
Readers may find Cairo, a town of declining fortunes that had just slightly more than six thousand people by 1970, to be an enigmatic place to excavate larger truths about the Black Power era. But it's clear that Cairo, the UF, and Charles Koen especially intersected with the larger Black Power landscape in important ways. The town was the site of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's first northern campaign, and Koen joined that organization during its Black Power transition in 1966 and became its Midwest deputy chairman in 1968. As both theologian and activist, Koen's influence reached audiences across the region and country. He was a featured speaker at the founding conference of the Congress of African Peoples, where he extolled the merits of a "redefined, relevant Christianity" to a room filled with some of the Black Power movement's most influential thinkers (p. 106). And in 1971, Cairo itself was the scene of the National Conference of Black Churchmen's spring convocation, with radical black clergy from across the country descending on the river city and networking with local activists. And, of course, national faith groups' funding of the UF's Black Power programming illustrates the former's support for the latter.
If Cairo is unfamiliar to most readers, the same cannot be said for the scene of Martin Deppe's Operation Breadbasket, which explores the work and history of the Operation Breadbasket organization in Chicago. Deppe is a retired pastor at Chicago's United Methodist Church and was one of the founding pastors of Chicago's Breadbasket—a church-based organization fighting for [End Page 114] black economic empowerment in the 1960s and early 1970s that originated in Atlanta but whose power base shifted to Chicago in the late 1960s. Through street pickets and selective-buying campaigns, Breadbasket sought to force employers to hire black workers, stock black-owned products, and invest in black-owned economic institutions. It also engaged in community uplift programs such as free breakfast programs for poor people, labored to instill a sense of black pride and self-love within the community, and sought to destroy the powerful Democratic machine in Chicago while vesting impoverished Chicagoans with greater political power.
A white pastor to a predominantly black congregation, Deppe was one of more than sixty pastors who served on Chicago Breadbasket's steering committee. His book is more a memoir of his experiences in Breadbasket and thoughts on it than a standard historical monograph, but while he is not a professionally trained historian, he uses the profession's conventions fairly well—footnoting and citing appropriately, drawing from original and primary sources, and making a compelling if not fully realized case for the "imprint of Breadbasket on the movement, on the community, and on the history of race and economics in America" (p. xxiii).
I suspect that Deppe would resist the designation of Breadbasket as a Black Power organization, and there is some interpretative credibility to such resistance. Breadbasket originated in the soil of the earlier civil rights movement, having been incorporated in Atlanta in 1962 by leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The organization was interracial, and Breadbasket activists partook in very little of the overt nationalism, socialism, militancy, and pan-Africanism that animated many other Black Power strains of thought and action. Deppe himself very much conceives of Breadbasket as part of the larger story of the civil rights movement. One of the book's explicit goals is to attach Breadbasket to the legacy of Martin Luther King, who urged Chicago Breadbasket's creation when he came to Chicago in 1966 for the better part of a year to help wage a campaign for open housing.
At the same time, Breadbasket's programming often aligned with Black Power analyses of the fundamental shortcomings and injustices of American society. Breadbasket activists sought to harness black political power ("politics is power," leader Jesse Jackson would say) in service of bringing black politicians into power who would refashion Chicago's breathtakingly unequal socioeconomic landscape. Jackson and other black Breadbasket leaders adopted Black Power aesthetics and idioms, and Breadbasket activists followed the lead of Black Power organizations in the creation of certain community programs (for instance, explicitly modeling its free breakfast program on the Black Panthers' model). Jackson, Breadbasket's most visible and notable leader, had a deeply fraught relationship with the local Black Panther leadership, but they did make efforts to work together where possible, and it was not [End Page 115] by happenstance that, when Illinois Black Panther Party Minister of Defense Bobby Rush feared assassination from Chicago police, he sought help from Breadbasket. All of this suggests that Breadbasket was, though certainly not at Black Power's vanguard, part of the Black Power milieu and infused to varying degrees with Black Power ideas and ethics.
It was also, of course, based in the churches. Clergy and seminarians were the driving force behind Breadbasket's creation and major work. Breadbasket rallies had a revivalist bent to them, including call-and-response meditations that in one sentence affirmed black beauty and pride ("I am—black—beauti-ful—proud—I must be respected—I must be protected") and, in the next, affirmed people's Godliness ("I am—a child of God") (p. 74). As with Cairo's United Front, then, churches and faith leaders not only provided the movement with its organizing spaces and leadership energy, but also with its intellectual frameworks.
And Deppe makes a compelling case that the resulting movement had real material effects in Chicago. Beginning in March of 1966, Chicago Breadbasket waged street picket and selective-buying campaigns against Chicago businesses that had heavy economic interests in black Chicago but failed to employ black workers in sufficient numbers. Leveraging those protests into boardroom negotiation with corporate leaders, Breadbasket successfully forced a succession of major companies (Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Jewel among them) to hire more black workers; promote more black people into managerial positions; stock and sell products made by black entrepreneurs; and transfer fractions of corporate profits into black-owned banks. Although Breadbasket didn't always succeed in holding companies accountable over the long term, the cumulative impact, Deppe writes, was still great: "Combining the annual dollar increases in jobs, black products, and black service contracts, by 1971 the black community of Chicago was gaining $57.5 million annually from Operation Breadbasket's justice work" (p. 195).
The Breadbasket story thus seems important as historical artifact, and also draws out some interesting intellectual questions about the Black Power era more generally. One of these concerns the internal dynamics of organizations with black public leadership and white supporting members. Where Jackson – who embraced Afrocentrism and Black Power aesthetics and rhetoric and preached and practiced uneven but growing amounts of political radicalism as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s – was Breadbasket's public face, Deppe the white liberal seminarian and Breadbasket worker seems routinely put off by Jackson and is critical of him throughout the book. This dynamic raises questions about the possibilities of coalition-building across lines of race, but more importantly across the liberal-radical political divide, in this transitional phase of the black freedom movement. [End Page 116]
The other major question the book raises involves the tension over what exactly black economic empowerment would even look like. Animated by a social gospel ethos and a spirit similar to that driving SCLC's Poor People's Campaign, Breadbasket originated as a demand for economic justice and as a jobs campaign for black people. But full dedication to that vision was in tension early and often with others who preferred that Breadbasket be a vehicle for black capitalism that would promote black products and black businesses. Especially in the late 1960s context in which Breadbasket was operating, this was a critical debate across black America (partially thanks to Richard Nixon's exhortation of black capitalism's virtues). Those who advocated working within capitalism to uplift African America's economic condition (such as the Urban League) tangled with those whose Marxist analysis considered black capitalism as capitulation to—rather than subversion of—a hopelessly repressive system (such as the Black Panthers). Within Deppe's book, that conflict emerges in microcosm, with intraorganizational struggle over the dynamics of black economic empowerment a recurring presence. But Deppe never slots them into a discussion of the larger dialectic shaping the history. While sympathetic to the fact that Deppe is not writing a straight historical monograph, this nevertheless feels like a missed opportunity to make a valuable historiographical intervention—especially since he does wield the standard historians' tools throughout the book.
Similarly, it would be interesting to know how Deppe interprets Breadbasket's relationship to other Chicago freedom movements. The received narrative about Chicago's freedom movement was that it largely died after the unsuccessful push for open housing in 1966. Indeed, both classic works on the subject, Alan B. Anderson and George W. Pickering's Confronting the Color Line: The Broken Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in Chicago (1986) and James R. Ralph's Northern Protest: Martin Luther King, Jr., Chicago, and the Civil Rights Movement (1993), read as stories of high, but ultimately frustrated, aspirations. Deppe's book seems to stand with a recent retrospective anthology on the movement, The Chicago Freedom Movement: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Civil Rights Activism in the North (2016), in implicitly challenging that narrative, but it doesn't spend much time making the case for Breadbasket as part of a larger milieu of Black Power-era activism. Jakobi Williams's From the Bullet to the Ballot: The Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party and Racial Coalition Politics in Chicago (2013) and the sections of Andrew Diamond's Mean Streets: Chicago Youths and the Everyday Struggle for Empowerment in the Multiracial City, 1908–1969 (2009) that deal with the political radicalization of black Chicago street gangs, for instance, would be interesting in dialogue with Deppe. In his own work, Williams himself notes ideological tension between the Panthers and Breadbasket, and it would be interesting to know how Deppe interprets Williams's argument. However, because Deppe, perhaps not fully versed in [End Page 117] the literature, never engages with Williams or cites him (or Diamond) in his notes or bibliography, we don't get a sense of how Deppe would respond to Williams's characterization of the Panther-Breadbasket relationship.
As a result, while both Pimblott's and Deppe's books present interesting case studies of faith-based activism during the Black Power era, readers will likely find Pimblott's Faith in Black Power to be a more compelling intervention than Deppe's Operation Breadbasket. Both books are valuable resources, and Deppe's is interesting to consider as a hybrid primary and secondary source. Pimblott's, however, takes us much further in recalibrating how we think about the relationship between Christianity and Black Power and how, for some activists at least, Black Power really could be, as James Cone hoped it would be, "Christ's central message to twentieth-century America."
Simon Balto is an Assistant Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Iowa. His first book, Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power, will be published in 2019 by the University of North Carolina Press.
1. James H. Cone, Black Theology and Black Power (1969), 1.
2. Ibid., 1–2.
3. Huey Newton, "On the Relevance of the Church: May 19, 1971," in The Huey P. Newton Reader (2002), David Hilliard and Donald Weise, eds., 217.