The 1980’s and the 1990’s witnessed the rise, within the Republican Party, of a religious right wing that denounced sex education in the public schools and the notion of a woman’s right to an abortion, while championing prayer in the public schools. In conflicts over such issues, the forces of religious fervor were usually arrayed on only one side of the issue. When secular liberals complained about the injection of religion into politics by such men of the cloth as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, they were brusquely reminded by religious rightists of an era when liberals had actually applauded churchly involvement in the issues of the day: the 1960’s.
Perhaps responding to a 1990’s awareness of the importance of religion in political life, Charles Marsh, a professor of theology at Loyola College in Baltimore, Maryland, revisits the 1960’s, concentrating his attention on the issue of civil rights that so tormented the southern United States during that era. Unlike the cultural wars of the 1990’s, the conflict over civil rights in the South, Marsh finds, did not pit born-again Christians against secular liberals. Instead, individuals on both sides of the struggle justified their positions by appealing to the will of God. Advocates of civil rights, both clerical and lay, believed that segregation was a sin; opponents of civil rights believed that integration was a sin; clergymen who wanted to avoid the issue argued that any clerical involvement in such matters was against God’s will. Although the majority of southerners, black and white, shared a common Protestant Christian religious heritage, they fought bitterly over the meaning of that faith for everyday life. Marsh draws this conclusion from a study of five individuals (two African Americans, three Caucasians) who took public positions concerning the struggle for civil rights in Mississippi.
Marsh sharply contrasts the views of his two black subjects, Fannie Lou Hamer and Cleveland Sellers. Hamer, a sharecropper’s daughter and native-born Mississippian, began her career as a voting rights activist in 1962. Marsh repeatedly praises Hamer both as a human being and as a kind of lay theologian (despite her lack of formal education) for the Civil Rights movement.
Hamer, Marsh points out, always insisted steadfastly on both the right of African Americans to political equality and the potential of Caucasians for redemption from the evil of racism; both views were derived from her reading of the Bible, whose interpretation she once tried to press upon her guards when she was in prison for violating a segregation statute. True to her belief in the evils of even self-imposed segregation, she approved of the decision to invite northern white student volunteers to come south to help register black Mississippians as voters in the summer of 1964; the murders of three such volunteers, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney, brought national attention to the Mississippi Civil Rights movement.
The author points out that Hamer’s conservative attitudes toward matters of personal morality, also rooted in her faith, sometimes caused her to be annoyed by the behavior of northern white volunteers; she was, he suggests, also disillusioned by the unwillingness of northern white liberal politicians at the Democratic Party Convention in 1964 to oust the all-white Mississippi delegation and to seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation, of which she was a member. Nonetheless, the author clearly regards the 1967 decision of the Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to expel all white members as a repudiation of everything Hamer stood for.
Marsh’s other black biographical subject, SNCC activist Cleveland Sellers, was born in South Carolina and attended Howard University; he worked for civil rights in Maryland and South Carolina as well as Mississippi. Sellers helped lead his organization from a belief in interracial democracy to an embrace of the ideal of black power, thereby (in Marsh’s view) betraying the Episcopal Christianity in which he had been raised. The shift to black power came in the wake of the shooting of James Meredith (the first African American to attend the University of Mississippi in 1966) and the march against fear that was undertaken in reply to that incident. Only after being imprisoned for several years on charges related to the Orangeburg Massacre (in which police opened fire on students in a South Carolina town in 1968) did Sellers finally return to the beliefs of his youth; by that time, the SNCC had disintegrated.
While Hamer is well known for her legal challenge of the right of white racists to dominate the state Democratic Party and to represent her state in Congress, Sellers, by contrast, seems...
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