The Black History Month 2012 theme is “Black Women in American Culture and History.” Appropriate consideration of that theme has to include Rosa Parks. Her courageous decision not to sit in the back of a Montgomery, Alabama city bus touched off the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott that set the pace for the mid-20th century civil rights movement and brought a preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr. to national prominence.
The remarkable thing about the effective and successful protest touched off by Mrs. Parks was that it happened in 1955 – before cell phones, text messaging, e-mail, Facebook or Twitter. People who often had limited resources and little formal training came together, changed a city and ultimately changed a nation with the involvement and leadership of the church.
Churches hosted strategy sessions and coordinated alternative transportation in Montgomery and were the staging grounds for protests in places ranging from Birmingham, Alabama to Charleston, South Carolina. Marches were led by Dr. King and other clergy, and diverse people of faith fought together for freedom and equality. The unifying thread in the civil rights movement was the involvement of people of faith, and the work of Mrs. Parks, Dr. King and the heroines and heros of the movement contain four lessons for people of faith today.
The first lesson is that people of faith and conviction can accomplish great things when they work together. On her own, Mrs. Parks was a seamstress, Secretary of the local NAACP and a Stewardess in the AME Church. On his own, Dr. King was a well educated but very young and very “green” Baptist pastor, but they came together with like minded clergy and laity to lead a quiet revolution. When today’s churches and clergy come out of our denominational comfort zones and go beyond our intra-church agendas, we can make the societal changes that are needed today.
The second lesson is that working for change may require sacrifice. Mrs. Parks was arrested for taking a stand and eventually compelled to leave her native Alabama, Dr. King was repeatedly arrested and vilified and eventually murdered, but they both chose to do what was right instead of what was safe.
Today’s churches and clergy must have the same willingness to sacrifice. Too often, we “get our Sunday praise on” and offer aid to the needy but don’t challenge systems that keep the needy on the bottom rung of society. We sometimes quietly accommodate to evil out of fear that we’ll lose favor with people in high places who can be financially beneficial to us. If we are to change things for the better, we have to shake off our compacency and fear and follow the God whose perfect love casts out fear.
The third lesson is that not everyone will applaud or support our actions. Dr. King penned his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” to answer critical black and white clergy in that southern city. A major reason for the establishment of the Progressive National Baptist Convention was the National Baptist Convention’s reluctance to embrace the civil rights movement. Those who stand for freedom and justice today will sometimes be criticized for saying too much, pressing too hard or moving too fast, but there’s never a wrong time to do the right thing.
The fourth lesson is that churches and clergy partnered with the NAACP, Congress of Racial Equality, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other like minded organizations. They laid their disparate agendas aside and worked for a common goal without regard for who got the eventual credit. When we look beyond who gets the credit and work together today for a common goal, our blessings will be shared blessings.
The evils of racism and division are more subtle and nuanced but no less real or dangerous today. The Tea Party movement, the coordinated regressive actions taken in many state legislatures and the rhetoric of the GOP Presidential Primary remind us of that. When we speak truth to power with one voice and address those present day challenges as our ancestors in the struggle fifty years ago, we can assure that the gains in freedom and equality that they won aren’t lost and that the civil rights revolution wasn’t simply the second Period of American Reconstruction.