In the wake of the Civil War in the United States, black people found themselves “free” in the sense that they were no longer held in slavery, but clearly denied equal rights. As the Reconstruction Era settled into its failure to provide black people with effective relief from racism, African-Americans looked for ways to bolster their claims to a right to an equal life. In many cases they turned to religious justification for their claims.
Over the succeeding decades, the complaints of black people were to remain relatively constant in the face of the overt racism into which the nation settled. While the racism remained constant, however, the response of African-Americans gradually shifted, and a part of that evolution was the decline in the importance of religious themes in the statements of blacks challenging racism.
Part of the importance of religion reflects the fact that the ministry had been one of the areas in which African-American were freer to acquire learning skills. A minister was expected to be a man of learning, while white generally feared learning in the black population as a whole. Ministers were also expected to be persuasive leaders in their communities. For many reasons, it was only natural that in the decades immediately after emancipation, the ministry provided many of the foremost figures in the struggle for equality.
As learning and avenues for leadership became more widespread, there was a comparative decline in the importance of overtly religious training in leadership in the African-American community. The additional fact that white churches were often overt in their racism further weakened the power of religion as a moving force in the movement for equality. Speaking in response to his expulsion form the Georgia legislature on the grounds of his race, Henry MacNeal Turner drew on his extensive religious background to call for black Christian nationalism.
His speech is filled with allusions to the Bible: “back to the day when God breathed the breath of life into Adam”; “an offense committed by the God of Heaven Himself”; “there is not a Cherubim that sit around God’s eternal Throne”; “while the sun shall continue to climb the hills of heaven”; “it is a thrust at the Bile – a thrust at the God of the Universe”; “it is simply calling the Great Jehovah a fool”; “a land where Bibles are read and Gospel truths are spoken . . . (Turner 132-34)
[R]emember that there is a just God in Heaven, whose All-Seeing Eye beholds alike the acts of the oppressor and the oppressed, and who, despite the machinations of the wicked, never fails to vindicate the cause of Justice, and the sanctity of His own handiwork. (Turner 134) T. Thomas Fortune had no background in the ministry. Instead, he was heavily influenced by Karl Marx. He realized, however, that the invocation of religious themes was widespread, both for and against racism and class oppression.
In his “Labor and Capital Are in Deadly Conflict,” he challenged directly the notion that the faults of earthly conditions had divine sanction. I believe in the divine right of man, not of caste or class, and I believe that any law made to perpetuate or to give immunity these as against the masses of mankind is an infamous and not-to-be-borne infringement of the just laws of the Creator, who sends each of us into the world as naked as a newly fledged jay bird and crumbles us back into the elements of Mother Earth by the same processes of mutation and final dissolution.
The social and material differences which obtain in the relations of mankind are the creations of man, not of God. God never made such a spook as a king or a duke; he never made such an economic monstrosity as a millionaire; he never gave John Jones the right to own a thousand or a hundred thousand acres of land with their complement of air and water. These are the conditions of man, who has sold his birthright to the Shylocks of the world and received not even a ness of potage for his inheritance.
The juxtaposition of religious and frankly non-religious terms cannot be look on as accidental: “the just law of the Creator” is followed immediately by the crass “naked as a newly fledged jay bird,” and “Mother Earth. ” Turner speaks of God making “such a spook,” and “an economic monstrosity. ” If there is a God in Turner’s world, He has neglected any duty to prevent the injustice of the world, and Turner appears singularly unconvinced that calling on him now will bring any relief.