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Atheists in the Civil Rights Movement

Posted by Josh Rothman  February 29, 2012 02:25 PM

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In the story of the Civil Rights Movement, pride of place is often given to religious African Americans like Martin Luther King, Jr., who used the power of religious ideas to-motivate and inspire millions of Americans. Writing for the Religious News Service, Kimberly Winston points out that there were plenty of African American atheists involved in the movement. They're often overlooked, she argues, because their atheism doesn't fit in with the usual Civil Rights narrative.

Take A. Philip Randolph. Today he's hardly remembered at all. In fact, he was a prominent labor leader who organized the March on Washington at which Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. (King called him "the chief.") "In 1973," Winston explains, "Randolph signed the Humanist Manifesto II, a public declaration of Humanist principles. He is reported to have said of prayer: 'Our aim is to appeal to reason. ... Prayer is not one of our remedies; it depends on what one is praying for. We consider prayer nothing more than a fervent wish; consequently the merit and worth of a prayer depend upon what the fervent wish is.'" (Winston has put together portraits of a few other prominent African American atheists here.)

The Civil Rights Movement, in short, was spiritually quite diverse. Randolph and other African American atheists, Winston writes, have been "ignored in the narrative of American history, sacrificed to the myth that the achievements of the civil rights movement were the accomplishments of religious -- mainly Christian -- people." Their atheism, and its relationship to their activism, is rarely discussed, in part because African Americans are among the most religious groups in the U.S.

Just how atheistic were the Civil Rights atheists? Winston quotes Juan Floyd-Thomas, a professor at Vanderbilt who's just written a book on black humanism, who says that, if they were alive today, many atheistic civil rights leaders "would not be too far out of step with the New Atheists," like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. More at the Religious News Service.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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