Black History Month is an enormous blessing to American Christians. When practiced as intended, it is a time for honoring the contributions and sacrifices people of color have made to make the world a better place for all people. Many of the nation’s most famous black leaders were moved to action by their Christian faith - civil rights icons like Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr. wrote extensively about their devotion to the Lord and desire to love others as Christ loved them. Behind each of these incredible people, however, are hundreds of other minority believers that gave up everything in pursuit of the same noble goal: to affirm the dignity of every image-bearer and create a world in which every human being—black or white, poor or rich—could experience human flourishing. Today, we’d like to remember the contributions of three individuals that followed Jesus into the suffering and pain, convinced He would be with them and give them the courage, boldness, and perseverance they needed.
Richard Allen, a former slave turned Methodist preacher, was a passionate advocate for civil rights for racial minorities. He co-founded the Free African Society of Philadelphia in 1787, a charitable institution led by religious blacks in the city that sought to provide support to African Americans living in and moving to the city. While the Society was comprised of black leaders from a variety of Christian faith traditions, writes scholar Michael Barga, the organization was, in part, “a response to the discrimination against black Methodists who requested aid from the charitable funds of their church.” Allen would go on to found and lead Bethel Church in 1794, a religious organization that one PBS contributor referred to as “black Philadelphia’s most important institution.”
Bethel Church was initially part of the Methodist denomination - most black leaders desired to continue working with their white brothers and sisters to promote the gospel together and leverage resources collectively. However, as the church started to grow, white leaders at the top of the denominational hierarchy became nervous. As the church grew, Anglo-Saxon members of the Methodist hierarchy cracked down, “hop[ing] to impress upon the new dynamic community that there were still limits of its independence.” White Methodists told Allen that they would consider preventing church meetings and other events in order to keep Bethel in line. Allen sought to peacefully resist. He appealed for Bethel’s autonomy through legal channels, and the church became increasingly popular because of their opposition to white oppression. White Methodists continued trying to shut the church down, at one point even selling the church’s property. Because of his excellent financial stewardship, however, Allen and other Bethel leaders were able to buy the church back and maintain independence. Despite having the church’s autonomy affirmed by several Pennsylvania courts, Allen and his black Methodist colleagues saw that remaining part of the Methodist denomination was unsustainable and broke off to create the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in 1815.
Allen was explicit about the Christian’s call to care for those around them. He lamented In his book, The Life, Experience, and Gospel Labours of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen, he writes that God fully expects us to use the gifts that He has given us to bless those around us. We are not to do this out of obligation, he says, but a desire to bring God more of the glory that he deserves:
“Our blessed Lord has not committed his goods to us as a dead stock, to be boarded up, or to lie unprofitably in our own hands. He expects that we shall put them out to proper and beneficial uses…By doing acts of mercy and charity we acknowledge our dependence upon God and his absolute right to whatever we possess through his bounty and goodness...” (p.52).
The AME denomination would grow by leaps and bounds over the next several years as free blacks across the Northeast and Midwest began organizing together. Many of these churches took their biblical charge to love their neighbors as themselves to heart and sought to support community members and migrants with housing, food, and other material items. AME churches would often build large basements and participate in the Underground Railroad as well, helping black slaves in the South escape to freedom in the North. The denomination is still vibrant today, and partnered churches continue to serve as community hubs across the country. When reflecting on the AME church, black activist W.E.B. DuBois praised the institution for being a “social center of astonishing efficiency, where the poor and ostracized met in human sympathy, mutual charity and encouragement, to fight the battle of life.”
MARY MCLEOD BETHUNE
In many ways, Mary McLeod Bethune paved the way for civil rights heroes most Americans know today. Born to two former slaves in Mayesville, South Carolina, in 1875, she was very familiar with the destitution Southern blacks experienced. While her parents had been legally freed from involuntary servitude they continued to languish as sharecroppers on the same land they worked as slaves. Despite this bleak reality, Mary’s parents remained deeply in love with Jesus and taught her the truths of the Bible. Mary began to attend a private mission school funded by a local Presbyterian church at the age of ten, and she walked five miles each way to take full advantage of her education. Even at an early age, writes Dr. Beverly C. Johnson, Mary was convinced that this opportunity to go to school was “miraculous evidence of a God-ordained destiny for her life, and saw this as an opportunity for her and her family to move beyond servitude and poverty.” At the mission school, Mary became educated in a variety of subjects and became a resource for her entire community. “She thought about politics, education, family, community ... religiously,” noted Dr. Yahya Jongintaba, professor of Religion and Humanities at Bethune-Cookman University. “It was amazing. She was endlessly forgiving and long suffering.”
After finishing her secondary schooling, she became a Presbyterian and attended Scotia Seminary for seven years before training to become a missionary at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, where she was the only African-American student enrolled. After being rejected for a missionary appointment in Africa because she was black, the Presbyterian Board of Education assigned her to an eighth grade teaching position in Augusta, Georgia. Convinced that a robust Christian education could serve as a springboard for impoverished black women and girls in the South, she founded her own all-girls school in Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1904. The move took incredible faith - at the time, she had just one dollar and fifty cents to her name. She canvassed the neighborhood to get buy-in from the community and built advisory committees comprised of both white and black neighbors to foster unity and promote financial investment for the project. "It is our object to give a thorough religious training,” wrote Bethune. “The supreme need of our people beyond doubt is Christian leadership. There is a crying need among us for women qualified as moral and Christian leaders. We are endeavoring to teach an every-day practical religion. The Bible is prominent in every department of our work. It is the guide of our lives."
Bethune hardly stopped there. She would go on to organize a boy’s club in 1905 and start a public housing project in 1938. When one of her black students was turned away from Daytona Beach’s main hospital, she even helped establish a hospital for minority patients in 1911. Determined to bring greater awareness to the needs and concerns of black women, Bethune helped found the National Council of Negro Women in 1935 and served as its first president. Her efforts to amplify the voices of black men and women across the country were quickly noticed by very important people. According to Bethune-Cookman University’s archives, Republican president Calvin Coolidge appointed her to his Child Welfare Conference, and President Herbert Hoover appointed her to his administration’s National Commission on Child Welfare and the Commission on Home Building and Home Ownership. Bethune even became personal friends with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor. After New Deal legislation created the National Youth Administration (NYA), Roosevelt made her leader of the program’s Division of Negro Affairs. She continued to have Roosevelt’s ear while he was president, and he would regularly consult her on topics like race relations and development in low-income communities. Bethune continued to advocate for the poor and marginalized late into her life. After leaving the Roosevelt administration, she helped found the United Negro College Fund in 1944, an entity that now awards disadvantaged minority students scholarships to 37 private historically black colleges and universities.
Despite countless trials and tribulations, Bethune remained resilient and obeyed the Lord’s leading. “In each experience of my life, I have had to step out of one little space of the known light, into a large area of darkness,” she wrote. “I had to stand awhile in the darkness, and then gradually God has given me light. But not to linger in. For as soon as that light has felt familiar, then the call has always come to step out ahead again into new darkness” (p.282).
FANNIE LOU HAMER
Most Americans profoundly under-appreciate the contributions of Fannie Lou Hamer. “Her name is not as celebrated as some other, more famous, figures in the civil rights movement, but it should be,” shared Russell Moore, President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “She was a committed Christian who believed the Bible taught the dignity of all those made in the image of God, and she suffered much for it.” Much like Bethune, Hamer was born to a poor sharecropping family in Mississippi in 1917. She was performing manual labor with her parents as early as six years old, and in order to help her family cover even the most basic of living expenses, she dropped out of school at the age of 12. With just a sixth grade education, Hamer would languish as a sharecropper for the next several decades. She would be further victimized when doctors sterilized her without her consent when she went in for a minor procedure in 1961. Thousands of poor and black women across the South experienced the same fate - in Mississippi, sterilizations were so common that Hamer referred to them as “Mississippi appendectomies.”
Hamer’s life changed dramatically after she attended her first Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) meeting in 1962. Animated by her passion for the Lord and hatred for injustice, she became a zealous advocate for the enfranchisement and empowerment of the South’s black communities. After the owner of her family’s plantation home found out she had applied to become a voter, he demanded that she rescind her application. When she refused, he fired her and threw her and her husband off the plantation. For the next several years, Hamer’s life would only become more difficult. In 1963, she and others were arrested in Charleston, South Carolina, after deciding to sit at the bus station’s whites-only lunch counter. Once in prison, guards and other inmates beat her so badly that many of her injuries were permanent. For the rest of her life, she’d bear the physical scars of racial hatred - kidney damage, a blood clot in her left eye, and a limp.
Nonetheless, she persisted. She co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in 1964, a group formed in response to the all-white delegation that the Mississippi Democratic Party sent to the Democratic National Convention that year. The organization’s leaders traveled to Atlantic City to protest the event and demand representation. While the MFDP received no real say nominating process, Hamer was given a chance to talk at the convention. During the live broadcast, Hamer described the beating she had received in prison and the plight of America’s most marginalized citizens. “We serve God by serving our fellow man; kids are suffering from malnutrition. People are going to the fields hungry. If you are a Christian, we are tired of being mistreated,” Hamer cried as she implored white believers around the country to take action (Cantarow and O’Mally, Moving the Mountain. p.64). Even after the 1964 convention, she tirelessly trained others how to register people to vote, canvas neighborhoods, and mobilize people for action. She even taught volunteers her favorite spirituals and sang when she was invited to speak at churches. “Mrs. Hamer rose majestically to her feet,”wrote Tracy Sugarman, a volunteer and journalist in Mississippi. “Her magnificent voice rolled through the chapel as she enlisted the Biblical ranks of martyrs and heroes to summon these folk to the Freedom banner. Her mounting, rolling battery of quotations and allusions from the Old and New Testaments stunned the audience with its thunder.” Although she passed away in 1977, her passion for gospel justice continues to inspire millions today.
ONWARD AND UPWARD
Sir Isaac Newton is widely considered one of the most important scientists in the history of the world, making groundbreaking discoveries in fields like mathematics, physics, and astronomy. While it would be easy to attribute all of his breakthroughs to his ingenuity, he was humble enough to admit the truth. “If I have seen further than others,” he once wrote in a letter to a rival scholar, “it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” While most of our conversations around race involve famous Christian activists like MLK, we should honor and recognize the unsung heroes that fought for biblical justice and restoration on the frontlines. Richard Allen, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Fannie Lou Hamer devoted their entire lives to seeing God’s kingdom come. With incredible bravery, they confronted white supremacy head-on and faithfully labored to build new systems that treated African-Americans with the dignity they deserve. The struggle for racial equity is far from over - deep disparities and injustices remain. However, we build upon the shoulders of giants. “The Lord was pleased to strengthen us, and remove all fear from us, and disposed our hearts to be as useful as possible,” Allen noted when recalling a difficult relief campaign in 1793 (p. 34). When we lay our lives down at the feet of Jesus, the Holy Spirit will also give us the power we need to press on.
Garrett serves as the Lead Data and Research Analyst and joined For the City in February 2018. He helps volunteers, pastors, nonprofit leaders, and business professionals better understand the characteristics and dynamics of their communities so that they can more effectively pursue human flourishing together. Garrett earned his master’s degree in public affairs from the University of Texas - Austin and continues to live in North Austin.
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