Department of Religious Studies professor Matthew Cressler will discuss religion and the Black Lives Matter movement during the College of Charleston Faculty Lecture Series at Addlestone Library this week.
“The Black Lives Matter movement is often characterized as ‘different’ than the civil rights movement,” says Cressler. “That difference is often qualified in the terms of religion, with Black Lives Matter being described as more secular than the civil rights movement.”
Cressler says that secular title is often used to try to delegitimize Black Lives Matter in the same way the secular label was placed on the Black Power movement in the 1970s.
He says his talk will challenge those arguments.
The College Today recently asked Cressler about Black Lives Matter:
There have been comparisons between Black Lives Matter and the civil rights movement. Is it fair to compare the two?
Yes, it is, to the extent that Black Lives Matter is the most recent example of ongoing black struggles for freedom and justice that date back to the time of slavery. Moreover, Black Lives Matter is the most prominent black social movement since the civil rights and Black Power movements of the mid-20th century.
The movement is different, of course, to the extent that it grows out of new social, political, and cultural circumstances. For instance, Black Lives Matter, among its many objectives, is working to challenge and dismantle mass incarceration which arose largely after the fall of Jim Crow. However, other issues, such as police brutality, are continuous with concerns raised in the civil rights movement. Black Lives Matter also differentiates itself from civil rights era protests in a number of tactical ways — for instance, their explicitly feminist and queer leadership challenges traditionally charismatic male-centered leadership of previous generations. However, their commitment to direct action protest would stand in continuity with the civil disobedience of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The Rev. William Barber calls this time period the “third Reconstruction,” connecting this historical moment to two previous turning points in the fight for black freedom (post-Civil War Reconstruction and the civil rights era) but noting that they are distinct in important ways too.
Do you think the civil rights movement would have grown without the religious element?
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would not have been the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. without his Christian faith. Malcolm X would not have been Malcolm X without his Muslim faith. Angela Davis would not be Angela Davis without her Marxist and existentialist philosophy. Fannie Lou Hamer would not have been Fannie Lou Hamer without her Pentecostal faith. Bob Moses would not have been Bob Moses without his connection to the reading of Albert Camus. Bayard Rustin would not have been Bayard Rustin without his Quaker beliefs.
Inasmuch as all of these people were motivated and inspired to action because of these beliefs, religion is an essential element of the civil rights movement. At the same time, we should be careful not to essentialize the movement as exclusively “religious,” given that many key figures (and activists in the movement) were motivated by decidedly secular beliefs.
Black Lives Matter is often called more secular than the civil rights movement. Is that the case?
If by secular we mean “non-religious” or “anti-religious,” then no. Black Lives Matter is differently religious – it does not grow directly out of black Christian institutions, nor is it led by black male ministers (it was three women, two of whom identify as queer, who coined #BlackLivesMatter, and they are religious, though not in traditionally Christian ways). Importantly, though, there are many black Christians who are active members in The Movement for Black Lives, and the movement has inspired and energized black Christians. Just as the civil rights movement had widespread religious diversity, so too Black Lives Matter is composed of supporters and activists from many religious and secular communities.
Though the term “secular” is helpful in some ways — for instance, in signaling the way that hip hop anthems such as Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” have served as the chorus to young activists in the way that explicitly Christian hymns did in the civil rights movement — it is often used to delegitimize the protest of black millennials who “don’t play by the rules” of an earlier generation of activists. This attempt to use religion (or lack thereof) to delegitimize black protest has historical precedent — this is precisely what was said of the Black Power movement of the 1970s which was said to have “put the Gospel on the back burner” in spite of the fact that it was led in many regards by black Muslims and it was taken up by a wide variety of black religious communities.
How do you see the role of Black Lives Matter in the current political climate?
The Movement for Black Lives is at the forefront of a number of different social justice movements that are working to transform our society. I’d also include the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, led by Native Americans along with their allies; Latin activists fighting attempts to demonize and deport immigrants; and Muslim activists fighting against Islamophobia and the recent immigration ban.
In short, the Black Lives Matter movement is but one (perhaps the most prominent) example of historically marginalized communities leading the fight against injustice in our country today.