The Unchurching of Black Lives Matter: The Evolving Role of Faith in the Fight for Racial Justice

Anna Savo-Matthews

The Black church was at the center of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. In the early 1990s, American society began a trend in secularization, whereby many Americans began to identify less with religious institutions. This societal shift, coupled with the rise of social media, has had a marked impact on racial justice movements. To illustrate how secularization has affected protest, this work compares the Civil Rights Movement with Black Lives Matter and specifically examines the decline of the Black church’s organizational capacity in Jacksonville, Florida.


Faith has long been closely intertwined with racial justice movements. Scholars of Black liberation theology believe that Jesus is the God of the oppressed, someone who stands with those struggling for freedom. This religious movement was born from civil-rights activism of the 1960s, and it continues to inspire activists to this day (1). Furthermore, the Civil Rights Movement’s close relationship with the Black church has been well documented, as the church provided organizational support that was crucial for the movement’s success (2). When comparing the Civil Rights Movement to more recent racial justice movements, more specifically the Black Lives Matter protests during the summer of 2020, the Black church has had a less prominent role in organizing and mobilizing protestors. However, spirituality still had a great influence over the content of the protests, as protesters often draw from a greater plurality of religious inspiration than the Civil Rights Movement did (3). In line with findings on a national scale, local reporting has found that spiritual rituals were incorporated into the Black Lives Matter protests in Jacksonville. Prayer, vigils, and altars were incorporated into the protests, and the rhetoric used by many organizers and protestors reflected common religious tropes.


The Civil Rights Movement and the Black Church

The impact of religion on the Civil Rights Movement has been well documented. Both in terms of organization and content of protests, the Black church had an enormous effect on the Civil Rights Movement. The Black church was an autonomous sphere, owned and controlled by Black people, within a larger societal context where Black people were excluded economically, socially, and politically. As a result, in terms of structure, the Black church was the primary organizational center for the Civil Rights Movement (4). The church provided a network of charismatic clergymen who were “economically independent of the larger white society,” a regular meeting place free from surveillance, and a membership that was united by a rich culture and similar political aims (5). As a result, the Black church gave the Civil Rights Movement many resources crucial for a successful social movement.

Additionally, the content of the protests themselves were often based on religious teachings from the Black church; one would have to look no further than Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches to see its influence. In one of his most famous speeches, “Eulogy for Martyred Children,” King draws upon Christian notions of martyrdom and applies these sentiments to the fight for racial equality. Older martyrdom accounts—like those of Perpetua and Felicity, or animal sacrifices found in Leviticus—speak of suffering and death transformationally powerful, sometimes for entire communities. King employs a similar theme in his speech, claiming that the children who lost their lives “died nobly,” and that “the innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city” (6). Furthermore, King’s speeches often explicitly draw connections between his faith and the modern-day fight for racial justice, saying “They did not die in vain. God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. History has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive” (7). When an innocent life is lost due to senseless violence, it can be a rational response to try to make sense of the tragedy. In this way, martyrdom accounts serve an important social function, allowing communities to grapple with tragedy in a meaningful way. Furthermore, these tragedies can be leveraged politically. Many sociologists consider martyrs to be “tangible cultural resources” that can be used to motivate social and political movements. The violence inflicted on a martyr can “galvanize a course of action” and rally a community around their cause (8).


Black Lives Matter and Secularization

Originally founded in 2013 following the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the Black Lives Matter movement began to build a more prominent national profile in the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, who were both killed by police in the summer of 2014 (9). The Black Lives Matter movement reached a new level of public support following the murder of George Floyd, and it is estimated that tens of millions of people participated in protests across the country in 2020 (10). As a result of its large and diverse membership, the movement is very decentralized; however, the general aims of the movement include police reform and reallocating police department funds to invest in Black communities directly.

In contrast to the powerful, direct influence the Black church had on the Civil Rights Movement, Black Lives Matter’s religious influences are far less straightforward, and this is especially apparent in the movement’s organization. Sociologists and political scientists have contended that the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter movement have markedly different structures. Professor of political science Dewey Clayton has noted that the leadership structure of the two organizations are “vastly different,” describing Black Lives Matter’s structure as “highly decentralized and unstructured” (11). He suggests that, rather than the Black church, social media is the new movement center for Black Lives Matter, contributing to its decentralized nature. Other scholars and researchers have confirmed that social media has played a “core role” in the proliferation of the movement, as platforms like Twitter and Instagram allow for the “documentation of cases of police violence” against both “individual African Americans” and “BLM protests,” which can draw emotional responses from casual users of social media (12). Because of its heavy use of social media, Black Lives Matter “does not want one leader,” but rather encourages leaders from all over the country to “engage in grassroots organizing in their local communities” (13). Jamal Bryant, a clergyman who spoke at Freddie Gray’s funeral, acknowledged this shift in leadership and noted that his role in Black Lives Matter is more limited, saying, “The difference between the Black Lives Matter movement and the civil-rights movement is that the civil-rights movement, by and large, was first out of the church. The Black Lives Matter movement, largely speaking, is not” (14).

However, despite the Black church’s receding role in the organization of the movement, the influence of religion and spirituality on the Black Lives Matter movement is still apparent on a national scale. Founders of the movement, like Patrisse Cullors for example, practice Ifà, a religious tradition from Nigeria. She describes her spirituality as having a huge influence on her protests, saying that, “seeking spirituality had a lot to do with trying to seek understanding about [her] conditions… and how [she understands] them as part of a larger fight, a fight for [her] life.” In Black Lives Matter more broadly, researchers have found that protests often incorporate a wide variety of religious rituals, from invoking “the names of abolitionist ancestors'' to “the creation of sacred sites and alters at locations of mourning” to “purification, protection, and healing practices'' like burning sage (15).

Overall, Black Lives Matter has incorporated rich religious pluralism into the national movement, as it draws inspiration from Native American, Buddhist, and African religious traditions, in addition to Black Protestant traditions (16). Scholars have found that Black Lives Matter draws from a broader source matter than the Civil Rights Movement did, and others argue that “the Black church is not the only religious well from which Black movements have historically drawn,” and Black Lives Matter is no different (17). Given the broad variety of faiths that Black Lives Matter draws inspiration from, Erika Gault argues that “we are actually seeing more religion, not less” (18). Younger activists from Baltimore described their own beliefs similarly; they did not necessarily have a diminished sense of spirituality, but they felt a need to express their religious beliefs outside of formal institutions. Brion Gill, a 25-year-old organizer, recounted that many of her friends within Black Lives Matter identify as “spiritual but not religious” and claim that they want “a relationship with the Creator” but don’t wish to manifest that “within the church space” (19).

BLM’s move away from formal religious organizations fits within social trends more broadly. Around the turn of the century, sociologists began to describe a new theory of secularization, which emphasized that faith is still a “powerful force at the individual level” despite a decline in religious institutional authority (20). Theorists from this newer perspective, sometimes called neosecularization theorists, emphasize that religion is not necessarily “declining… They believe that it is changing” (21). These findings are similar to those articulated in a major study by Hout and Fischer, who found that the number of Americans who identified themselves as having no religious preference increased significantly in the late nineties. From the early ‘90s to the early 2000’s, the number of adults who reported having no religious preference doubled, from roughly 7 percent, to 14 percent (22). However, despite this increase, a significant portion of the population still retains spiritual beliefs: “Over two-thirds (68 percent) of adults with no religious preference expressed some belief in God or a higher power in 1998 or 2000; one-fourth said they do not doubt that God really exists” (23). Thus, the decrease in identification with formal institutions is not driven largely by a decrease in religious sentiment, but rather a stronger desire to disassociate from organized religion. This urge to express religious beliefs often originates from a desire to distance oneself from the conservative political views often associated with religious institutions (24). The sudden decline in religious identifications correlated with the rise of the Religious Right, as “religious conservatives definitely received more attention in the press in the 1990s than during earlier years” (25). Therefore, the authors argue that the rise of the Religious Right initiated dissociation with religious institutions among left-leaning individuals.

Hout and Fisher stress that a decline in religious identification is most attributable to a dislike of the Religious Right, and not a result of a decline in religious sentiment or ideas: “The key fact, in sum, about people who express no religious preference is that most are believers of some sort, and many are quite conventional” (26). One of the most commonly used metrics to gauge the religiosity of an individual is the frequency with which they pray. This metric was cited by the authors of this study, and they noted that of the respondents who claimed no religious preference, “Relatively few are secular, agnostic, or atheist; most actually pray. Their most distinguishing feature is their avoidance of churches” (27). Therefore, we may expect contemporary activists to still express religious beliefs and participate in religious rituals in protest, even though they may not be guided by any specific institution. The authors of this article actually raise concerns regarding the future of religious institutions and their connections to social and political movements, asking the question of how the “spiritual but not religious” trend will affect new social movements (28).

Overall, secularization in the Black Lives Matter movement seems to be widely consistent with a general nationwide trend towards secularization. While formal religious institutions have less power in influencing behavior and social movements, religious beliefs are still held by a majority of those who participate in the BLM movement. This seems to be the general consensus among scholars who have studied the movement; that, while the movement is no longer organized through the church, spirituality still has a great influence on the movement, and at times, protest can even be a spiritual act. To examine these claims, I will take a closer look at one specific city. To get a sense of how the shift from ‘churched’ social movements to a decentralized movement plays out in a specific city, I will compare Jacksonville’s Civil Rights Movement to its Black Lives Matter movement.


Jacksonville and Racial Justice

Jacksonville has an extensive history with the Civil Rights Movement. For a considerable portion of time, the primary method of challenging segregation in Jacksonville was through litigation. The City Council segregated numerous public services: streetcars, saloons, theaters. There were long, drawn-out attempts to overturn these and other segregation policies like unequal pay, and an “all-white Democratic primary” (29). However, the courts ruled against African American attorneys seeking to challenge segregationist policies. As a result, civil rights activists turned to civil disobedience.

One of the most well-known events in the history of civil rights activism in Jacksonville occurred on August 27, 1960, when a group of African American men staged a sit-in to protest segregation in local businesses and lunch counters (30). The group of protestors were attacked by a group of over 200 Ku Klux Klan members, armed with baseball bats and axe handles. The lunch counters were desegregated in the months following this protest. Although African American communities in Jacksonville had pushed for desegregation in the past, many locals see Axe Handle Saturday as the true start of the Civil Rights Movement in Jacksonville. A first-hand account from protestor Rodney Hurstdetails the planning that went into this protest. His account demonstrates the importance of the Black church. In Hurst’s view, the Black church was a lifeline for the Civil Rights Movement: “the civil rights movement in Jacksonville would not have survived without the support of Black pastors and their churches” (31). Along with providing a support network for protestors, Black churches were the meeting place for the NAACP meetings during the fifties and sixties, providing resources for a legal organization responsible for many local civil rights victories (32). The NAACP’s efforts were crucial in desegregating businesses and public services in Jacksonville. In the months following Axe Handle Saturday, the NAACP Youth Council continued a boycott of downtown merchants, and in the following year the NAACP and business leaders reached an agreement to desegregate the lunch counters (33).

Turning to the Black Lives Matter protests that took place decades after the Civil Rights Movement, it is apparent that Jacksonville mirrors national religious trends. While Jacksonville’s Civil Rights Movement used the Black church as its main movement center, taking advantage of its resources and member base, the Black Lives Matter protests were organized in a more decentralized manner, often relying on social media to spread awareness of police violence and information about upcoming events and protests.

Over the course of the summer of 2020, several waves of protests were held in Jacksonville; from May 30th to June 8th, the city saw thousands of protestors participate in marches in the downtown area (34). Smaller marches occurred sporadically throughout the greater Jacksonville area in the subsequent weeks. A smaller march took place near Atlantic and Neptune Beach on June 28th. An inter-faith group held a Juneteenth celebration live stream discussing racial injustice on June 19th, and a group of Black ministers hosted a press conference in front of the Duval County Courthouse on June 8th (35). Another wave of protests occurred on July 10th, as protestors blocked off portions of highways around the downtown area (36).

Consistent with findings on a national scale, the Jacksonville protests were largely organized through social media; websites like Twitter and Instagram played a crucial role in spreading information throughout the Jacksonville community. Social media accounts were started at several Duval county high schools to document instances of racial profiling; the accounts generally followed a similar format: “they’re titled “Black At [the respective school]” and allow students, parents, and faculty to submit posts where they document racist experiences they’ve had at their respective high school, which are shared publicly on the Instagram account (37). Kiara Alexis, a young community organizer born and raised in West Jacksonville, described the crucial role Twitter played in diffusing information throughout her community, saying “Twitter has become this hub… the news won’t tell you what’s going on, but people on Twitter, they’re gonna come up there and they’re gonna give it to you” (38).


Diversity in Spirituality

Again, in line with findings on a national scale, although the church was not the main avenue through which protests were organized, religion and spirituality still had a notable impact on the content of the protests. Moments of prayer were incorporated into many of the protests that took place in Jacksonville. One notable example took place on June 3, outside of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, where faith leaders led a prayer before a press conference on police accountability (39). Rituals and prayers were not only seen in smaller protests: one of the largest rallies that took place in Jacksonville was the “Reflective Walk” for Floyd in which over 1,000 participants prayed before marching throughout Jacksonville’s San Marco business district and residential areas (40). Even protests that were planned by secular organizations, like The Women’s March Jacksonville Chapter, involved spiritual ceremonies. The Women’s March held a two-hour long remembrance ritual on June 4, where “candles were lit in memory of those who died by police or racial brutality, plants watered on a table as each was remembered.” Participants at this protest were encouraged to express their “sorrow and disgust over the racial division in this country” (41).

Jacksonville’s protests often seem to embody what sociologist Emile Durkheim would identify as “collective effervescence,” referring to the emotional effect experienced by individuals when they collectively perform religious rituals; when people come together and perform the same action together, they may feel ‘outside of themselves.’ Durkheim describes this process in Elementary Forms of Religious Life, saying that “When collective life reaches a certain degree of intensity it awakens religious thought… vital energies become overstimulated, sensations stronger; there are even some that are produced only at this moment” (42). In this moment, collective effervescence then strengthens group identity. The common usage of prayer in protest likely serves a similar function; overall, rituals like group prayer serve an important, unifying force during protests, allowing the protester to step outside of themselves and feel a greater sense of unity with those they are protesting with. Aspects of the Jacksonville protests encourage such an experience. For example, Chapter President Bonnie Hendrix was reported as saying “I felt it was time for black people to have the podium to raise their voice, to be heard, to let the pain and anguish of years of oppression, out,” acknowledging the heightened emotional experience that was produced by the remembrance ritual (43).

Even disregarding the use of rituals like prayer and reflection, protests exhibited religious characteristics in other ways. When activists described their motivations for protesting, they often directly or indirectly referenced their religious beliefs, often echoing sentiments in speeches from the Civil Rights Movement. On June 8th, several dozen ministers from local Black churches read a letter addressed to Jacksonville mayor Lenny Curry, Sheriff Mike Williams, and various other city and state officials. The letter called for a variety of reforms that asked for increased transparency and communication between police and community members. Some of the demands included roundtable discussions with black officers, increased sensitivity training, and increased diversity in leadership (44). Martyrdom narratives were incorporated into the minister’s press conference as well, as one minister was quoted as saying “It was as a result of George Floyd that all of a sudden a choir began. A choir of people from all across this nation have come together to lend their voices together in harmony for the express purpose of making sure that people can be treated fair.” In a similar manner to how martyrdom narratives were used during the Civil Rights Movement, the pain and suffering inflicted upon George Floyd can be the impetus for social change. In the quote from Rev. Williams, there are themes of unity and healing, demonstrating similar themes to those used by Martin Luther King Jr. in his “Eulogy for Martyred Children” as well as older martyrdom accounts, like those in Leviticus, where the loss of innocent life has the power to transform an entire community.

In honor of Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the end of slavery, the Interfaith Center of Northeast Florida held a livestream, connecting the protests that took place this summer to the fight for equality during the Civil War. Religion again played a large role in the motivations for those participating in the conversation. In describing her motivations for fighting for justice, Rev. Juana Jordan referenced Matthew 10 as an inspiration for resilience in her activism, saying “[Jesus] says people are gonna harass you, and he talks a lot about… using your voice. If you are a part of the family, if you are gonna do what I’m doing, people are gonna come against you. But there’s some responsibilities that you have” (45). In a later comment, Rev. Juana again connected the notion of equal rights to Scripture, saying “I believe in communion, there is more than enough at the table. When Jesus laid out the table, he stretched the table to make sure everybody could come around” (46). This livestream reiterated a common theme from Hurst’s personal account, where faith gives activists resilience in their work.


Conclusion

In conclusion, faith still plays a prominent role in Black civil rights movements, but its role has been complicated due to recent trends in secularization and the rise of social media. Although social media has replaced the Black church as the organizational center of the movement, spirituality has proved itself to be indispensable to the movement due to its ability to unify protesters through rituals. Finally, spiritual beliefs also seem to be a powerful source of motivation for those who participate in protest, providing inspiration to continue persevering when met with opposition. With this sudden shift towards a more decentralized movement center, it will be interesting to see if Black Lives Matter will be able to achieve the same legislative successes as the Civil Rights Movement.

Endnotes 1 “Black Liberation Theology, in its Founder’s Words,” NPR, 2008. 2 Morris, Aldon D, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change, (The Free Press, 1986). 3 Gleig, Ann and Farrag, Hebah, “Far from Being anti-religious, faith and spirituality run deep in Black Lives Matter,” The Conversation. 4 Morris, Aldon D, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change, 4. 5 Ibid. 6 King, Martin Luther, “Eulogy for the Martyred Children,” Carnegie Mellon University. 7 Ibid, 221. 8 DeSoucey et al, “Memory and Sacrifice: An Embodied Theory of Martyrdom,” (Cultural Sociology, 2008), 114. 9 Luibrand, Shannon, “How a death in Ferguson sparked a movement in America,” 2015. 10 Buchanan, Quoctrung, and Patel, “Black Lives Matter May Be the Largest Movement in U.S. History,” 2020. 11 Clayton, Dewey M, “Black Lives Matter and the Civil Rights Movement: A Comparative Analysis of Two Social Movements in the United States,” Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 49 no. 5, 2018. 12 Bolsover, Gillian, “Black Lives Matter discourse on US social media during COVID: polarised positions enacted in a new event,” The University of Leeds, Centre for Democratic Engagement, 2020. 13 Clayton, Dewey M, “Black Lives Matter and the Civil Rights Movement: A Comparative Analysis of Two Social Movements in the United States.” 14 Green, Emma, “Black Activism, Unchurched,” The Atlantic, 2016. 15 Gleig, Ann and Farrag, Hebah, “Far from Being anti-religious, faith and spirituality run deep in Black Lives Matter,” The Conversation. 16 Ibid. 17 Ibid. 18 Ibid. 19 Green, Emma, “Black Activism, Unchurched.” 20 Yamane, David and Roberts, Keith A, “Secularization: Religion in Decline or Transformation?” Religion in Sociological Perspective, (SAGE Publications, 2015), 25. 21 Ibid. 22 Hout, Michael and Fischer, Claude, “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations,” American Sociological Review, vol. 67, no. 2, pp. 165-190, (April 2002), 166. 23 Ibid, 173. 24 Ibid, 168. 25 Ibid, 179. 26 Ibid, 175. 27 Ibid, 175. 28 Ibid, 178. 29 Crooks, James B, “The history of Jacksonville race relations. Part 2: Struggling for equality,” The Florida Times-Union, 2021. 30 Ibid. 31 Hurst, Rodney L, “It was never about a hotdog and a Coke,” Wingspan Press, 2008. 32 Ibid. 33 Woods, Mark and Soergel, Matt, “Ax Handle Saturday: The segregated lunch counters are gone, but the ‘Jacksonville Story’ continues,” 2020. 34 Avanier, Erik, “Thousands march through San Marco during peaceful demonstration,” 2020. 35 “The Spirit of Juneteenth,” YouTube, Uploaded by Interfaith Center of Northeast Florida, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=flDBJx_HWhM&feature=youtu.be 36 Cravey, Beth R. and Patterson, Steve, “Black Lives Matter protesters march through downtown Jacksonville; 3 arrested,” The Florida Times-Union, 2016. 37 Bloch, Emily, “Students at Jacksonville’s elite schools discuss racism — often anonymously,” The Florida Times-Union, 2020. 38 “The Spirit of Juneteenth,” YouTube, 50:13. 39 “Photos: Jacksonville Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death,” The Florida Times-Union, 2020. 40 Ibid. 41 Scanlan, Dan, “Jacksonville Residents continue protests in support of black lives,” The Florida Times-Union. 2020. 42 Durkheim, Emile, “The Elementary Forms of Religious Life,” (Oxford University Press: 2001), 317. 43 Scanlan, Dan, “Jacksonville Residents continue protests in support of black lives.” 44 Savo-Matthews, Anna, “Black ministers call for Jacksonville reforms amid unrest,” The Florida Times-Union, 2020. 45 “The Spirit of Juneteenth,” YouTube, 61:28. 46 Ibid, 66:54.


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