Sunday, May 1, 2011

Nonbelievers in the civil rights movement

Accommodationists are fond of expressing shock, shock, to hear atheists mention the history of other prejudices and social movements in the context of discussing our own. How dare we equate the challenges atheists face to anti-Semitism or our movement to the civil rights or LGBT rights movements (not as much huffiness over references to feminism, unsurprisingly)?

This is of course disingenuous posturing. First, in the vast majority of cases it is obvious – and often called to their attention explicitly – that people are not seeking to equate these movements in every way, that “it’s about pointing out similarities in the way the movements and the backlashes against them play out.” (Indeed, it’s conceivable that we could also refer to the experiences of religious or authoritarian movements. Analyzing movement dynamics doesn’t mean erasing particular content or experiences, but viewing these through the lens of the dynamic under consideration.) It’s also rather callous, casually minimizing and dismissing the very real problems and threats faced by open atheists in their personal and public lives.

But this latest playwhinging episode has me thinking about atheism and the civil rights movement. The simplistic narrative of civil rights struggles, apparently favored by some accommodationists, seems to feature rather depoliticized black people, inspired by their faith and organized by churches, fighting for equality and facing resistance based solely on the color of their skin or their civil rights activism. This does not reflect reality. The civil rights movement involved a diverse coalition confronting mainstream churches who detested activists for their race and ethnicity, leftist politics, challenging of traditional gender roles, and, yes, atheism.

Susan Jacoby writes of this history in Freethinkers:

“The Christian Right,” she says,
would like today’s public to forget exactly where religious conservatives stood on civil rights forty years ago. One of the more repellent ironies of modern religious correctness has been the attempt by fundamentalists to wrap themselves in the mantle of those men and women of faith who risked their lives to fight racism. In the sixties, right-wing fundamentalists were, almost without exception, hard-core segregationists. They attacked the twentieth-century civil rights movement as their spiritual and often physical ancestors had attacked the nineteenth-century abolitionist and feminist movements. What they saw was what their predecessors had seen – not a struggle for justice but a conspiracy of atheism, political radicalism, and sexual libertinism (326).
While “[i]t is inarguable that the preeminent moral leadership of the early civil rights struggle came from the black churches of the South,…only those with an interest in concealing the sorry racial record of so many white churches, North and South, have the temerity to credit religion per se for inspiring the movement” (326). Support from white northern churches was inconsistent and often passive, and the majority of southern white religious people (especially evangelicals), including religious leaders, were “staunch defenders of segregation” (327). Southern Catholic and Jewish congregations had a better but uneven and tentative record.

While northern white people had little involvement in the important struggles in the South in the ‘50s, in the ‘60s, as northerners headed south, a diverse coalition of liberal Catholics and Protestants, religious and secular Jews, agnostics, and atheists joined the original activists, and the movement
became a collaboration among Americans of many religions, and of no religion, moved by the same moral imperatives.* It was a coalition the nation had not seen since the abolitionist movement, when iconoclastic religious believers and freethinkers were united by the conviction that slavery was immoral, when Garrison declared his belief that membership in the human race – not membership in a church – was all that was required to recognize the evil of slavery (330).
She is careful to emphasize that “the white members of that dedicated coalition never spoke for middle-of-the-road white church members in the North or the South” (330). The largest segment of college-age white Freedom Summer volunteers in the first half of the ‘60s, according to Jacoby, were nonobservant Jews, “motivated not by Judaism as a religion but by the secular Jewish tradition of social activism… Nigger was the only epithet hurled more frequently at marchers than kike and Jew-boy” (333). There were nonreligious within the black activist community as well. “Many of the younger men held views on religion more in line with those of W. E. B. Du Bois – who had almost as little respect for the black church as he did for white churches – than with those of King” (332).

As with earlier coalitional movements, the diversity of beliefs amongst activists created tensions within the community and external-relations concerns for the believers. “The irreligion of many of the younger white volunteers was a sore point not only with white segregationists but also with many respected elders in southern black communities” themselves (332). Even MLK had trouble accepting even his close friend and lawyer Stanley Levison’s atheistic and humanistic morality: “King found it impossible to imagine that someone could be as morally committed to the betterment of humanity as Levison without believing in any god or any religion. ‘You believe in God, Stan’, King would tease his friend. ‘You just don’t know it’” (331). (While Jacoby suggests that “[T]he younger nonreligious blacks did not always display the respect for devout African American believers that King and his clerical contemporaries displayed toward those whose humanism was the sole moral basis of their commitment to civil rights” (333), she presents no evidence of this, and the quotation from King doesn’t particularly demonstrate a respect for the nonreligious.)

The movement’s enemies ceaselessly charged that “‘atheistic’ and ‘communistic’ volunteers had descended upon the South in order to engage in promiscuous interracial sex” (331). Under these conditions, Jacoby asks, “What civil rights leader would wish to underscore the religious unconventionality of so many volunteers” (331)? The extensive participation of nonreligious in this context created problems for the the believers:
Like the image-conscious suffragists at the turn of the century, civil rights leaders had good reason not to draw attention to the importance of the nonreligious, and even the unconventionally religious, in their movement(330).
Jacoby tells of the prejudices involved with the murders of civil rights activists Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwermer, and Viola Gregg Liuzzo. Goodman and Schwermer, Jewish atheists and secular humanists, were killed along with James Chaney in June of 1964. Although the killers had only planned to murder Schwermer, Goodman was killed as well because “he was with Schwermer and was, after all, only ‘another atheist, Communist, nigger-loving Jew’” (334).

Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a civil rights volunteer murdered by Klansmen nine months later, is described by Jacoby as a “spiritual humanist.” Like Michael Schwermer’s wife Rita, Liuzzo was “attacked not only as a northern busybody but…as an unnatural woman who had stepped out of her God-ordained place in society” (337):
Liuzzo’s status as a mother of five was not used to gain sympathy for her but to impeach her character; national opinion polls showed that a majority of Americans, women as well as men, northerners as well as southerners – felt that no mother had a right to leave her children, even for a few days, to work for a social cause. That Liuzzo had not expected to be murdered was beside the point in the view of a public that still believed a woman’s place was in the home (336).
The “remarkably persistent social stereotypes used to label female social activists as libertines and opponents of God Himself” (333) and the defaming of atheism were promoted by the FBI, and used by defense attorney Matt Murphy, who had good reason to expect them to resonate, at the trial of Liuzzo’s killers:
‘Mrs. Liuzzo was up there singing “we will overcome, we will overcome, we will overcome”’ he ranted. ‘What in God’s name were they trying to overcome? God himself?...Integration breaks every moral law God wrote. Noah’s son was Ham and he committed adultery and his sons were the Hamites and God banished them and they went to Africa and the only thing they ever built was grass huts. No white woman can ever marry a descendent of Ham’ (336).
A greater appreciation of the “many heroes animated by nonreligious humanism” (338) in the civil rights and other movements in US history can bring useful insights. As Jacoby's narrative attests (and other evidence clearly shows), beliefs about religion and hostility to atheism and atheists in the US should be recognized not merely as deriving from simple ignorance but as the result of decades of orchestrated political campaigns from the (religious) right.

Also, the complexities of coalitional movements need to be acknowledged and addressed. Jacoby represents the extensive participation of the nonreligious in the civil rights movement in the context of attacks from without as “a delicate issue for those who wished the cause of racial justice to be seen not as a radical departure from but as the embodiment of American tradition at its best” (330). But of course the best of the American tradition is subjective, and the historiographer chooses her primary protagonists. Downplaying the participation of atheists and the humanist basis for much courageous civil rights activism made life more difficult for the nonreligious at the time, both as civil rights activists and simply as atheists, and for atheists in the future. (It’s hard to imagine how difficult it would have been for a black woman to be a vocal atheist in these circumstances.) It’s probable that this marginalizing of the nonreligious and of humanistic morality within the movement has contributed to the acceptance of a narrative that overwhelmingly, virtually exclusively, emphasizes religious leadership and inspiration.

We have no way of knowing how the wide-ranging activism of the Cold War era would have played out if these movements had responded more defiantly to attacks on “unconventional” beliefs and behavior - but I think today’s movements are in a position to act differently. Atheists and humanists, people challenging traditional roles, and political radicals should think twice about participating in coalitions that celebrate other participants and views at their expense, and should resist the muting of their voices and projects. Others in coalitions with marginalized groups should respect what a coalition is. A true coalition is one of equals, in which no voices are marginalized or silenced and no one pressured into setting aside or delaying some struggles in the supposed pursuit of others, particularly when these are inseparable.

*This claim is slightly problematic – while they shared much, there was variation in the specific moralities and goals involved.


  1. Fantastic stuff, SC. Would that all this were more widely recognized.

  2. Thanks so much, Rieux. I value your opinion (and love reading your comments elsewhere, by the way).

  3. I wrote a long appreciative comment on this with a slight disagreement and it didn't let me post it. Nonetheless, let me say I think this is a great post apart from the opening ;)

  4. Oh, no! I'm truly sorry. If you divide it up it might help, but nothing about this setup (including, er, me) is conducive to productive discussion in the comments.

    Since I'm not in an argumentative mood, I'll just thank you for your comment/praise.


  5. Good morning, SC. A nice job showing the sectarian nuances involved in the civil rights struggle

    As a nonbeliever, I find it very sad to think that if MLK had been a leader of an established religious sect, that the civil-rights movement might not have had the success it did.

    Also, the quote by Mr. Murphy, as well as the appalling poll showing that most felt that women had no right to a voice, is something I wish were eradicated completely. Seeing the religious right's attempts to go back to that mindset is discouraging.

  6. Fascinating, SC. I knew vaguely about the strong secular Jewish involvement, but none of the rest.