The Black Church in the Modern Civil Rights Movement

How did Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” relate to the work of spiritual leaders?

Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” written in 1963, included his critique of fellow spiritual leaders who were unwilling to address problems of discrimination inside and outside of the religious community. In nearly every African-American community, one or more churches provided tangible as well as moral and spiritual support to the movement as an extension of its traditional role of service. The majority of civil rights rallies and mass meetings were held in black churches, which were generally the largest facilities independently owned and operated by African Americans in any given location. Some churches encouraged participation and/or membership of their congregations in civil rights organizations and created support networks for students, civil rights workers, and volunteers. In Nashville, Tennessee, for example, plans for the local sit-in movement were made in Clark Memorial United Methodist Church. Black churches also continued civil rights initiatives after media coverage and publicity from major events ended. Designated offerings raised during regular church services and community mass meetings were used for direct financial support for various civil rights activities, such as helping jailed demonstrators to make bail and paying for fines. Many churches have now been designated as state and/or national historic landmarks as a result of their role in the Civil Rights Movement.


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