Did African Americans Properly Evoke Religion In Their Demand For Civil Rights?

By Donald A. Collins | 27 October 2013
Church and State

(Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Will African Americans vote to sustain the American Dream for which they fought so correctly and valiantly? Like the dream Martin Luther King envisioned when he made that 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech which stands as a major marker in our history, certainly that dream is not yet fully realized.

This raises a vital question, what is the present status of the famous American Dream? Any consideration brings forth very abruptly and quite poignantly thoughts of one’s past and how those changes to the American Dream balance out.

Certainly anyone of my age–over 80–has seen a sweeping list of developments which are both wonderful and deplorable.

Looking back on that time when Bull Connor and policemen attacked innocent Blacks in Montgomery, Alabama, there were the prominent components of their religious beliefs and their long musical heritage which were central to their non violent protests. These factors practised in their churches throughout the South were vital in keeping up the spirits of these black citizens who knew they were putting their very lives on the line to make the US live up to its Constitutional responsibilities.

Watching the American Experience one and one half hour special on 10/26/13 on WETA Channel 32 on the history of the American civil rights movement, we were exposed to graphically moving segments of that historically vicious confrontation with white supremacists in the American South.

But the action films shown in this PBS program were divided by musical presentations by current artists both black and white of the songs of that civil rights movement that kept the spirit of the marchers from flagging in the face of the constant fear of death or serious bodily injury from the unjust state and local laws enforced in the Southern US cities and other places where these brave blacks dared to ask peacefully for their rights under our Constitution.

Much of this remarkable courage from these black activists came from massing together in their Protestant churches where gospel music was a staple.

Here was a case where religion and music and cultural cohesion provided the initiative for enough of these brave American citizens to accomplish what many saw as impossible progress. Was religion interfering with the civil conduct of secular affairs?

In short, did the demand for rights under civil law using the support of religious beliefs constitute a violation of our web sites main message about the need to keep church or spiritual matters separate from state governance.

It seems to me there is no impropriety for citizens to seek their secular rights which are provided very specifically by our Constitution and Bill of Rights with peaceful protests, however phrased in Biblical scripture or beliefs in God.

Meanwhile, for many Americans at that time in our history, mostly white, the American Dream offered huge benefits.

In 1972 when I fell ill with a rare form of pneumonia, I ran a fever of about 104 degrees for a week before my condition became so serious I needed to be hospitalized by my puzzled physician. Turns out that a then new Eli Lilly drug called Keflex allowed me to survive, although it took me several months to recover to full strength. But few of us now die of diseases like tuberculosis and typhoid, which in earlier times claimed the lives of millions.

Indeed, it was drugs such as penicillin, discovered by Nobelist Alexander Fleming in 1928 which dramatically cut world death rates and precipitated the huge increases in population since my birth in 1931 when the US population was about 125 million to its present level of 320 million.

Therein lies, in my view, another major factor in events that have affected the so called American Dream. It brought vast new numbers of aliens to America after that historic change in our immigration law in 1965, numbers which every year far exceeded the flow of immigrants coming here for the previous 4 decades. Since 1965, when our population was under 200 million, we have grown to 320 million and are projected to reach 450 million in several decades.

What will that do to the substantial social, legal, technological accomplishments which lead us all to be proud of our American Dream?

Let’s be clear, that dream, since the founding of our republic was never wide enough to embrace many of us, including, as I note herein, African Americans. Their odious plight was long overlooked and unaddressed, and certainly not completely settled even now, but certainly today, we must applaud how, in the 20th Century and now in the 21st, changes were accomplished.

But for much of the white majority, despite the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the ravages of WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and now the Middle East quagmires, the Dream has been immensely positive. Better health, better comforts, better options for a fuller life. Thus is it easy to see (through our huge cultural output in every medium such as TV and the Internet) that others around the world–the 7 billion humans who don’t live here–that life in the USA is better than almost anywhere else in the world.

With the current campaign by the Obama Administration to push for a so called Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill, wrongly characterizing the Senate Bill S 744 as “bi-partisan”, it may tempt African Americans who rejoice as I do at the election of the first African American President and ignore the underlying principle that the proposed adoption of comprehensive immigration reform–CIR (read “another 1986 amnesty”) ignores.

How ironic that again the same government that allowed, until confronted by the civil rights movement, the same failure to enforce existing laws, this time immigration statutes which have enabled millions of illegal aliens to enter our nation and not even be tracked for so doing by our government. This time the government is headed by an African American, whose forbears gave him the rights he now enjoys.

Yes, the basic Rule of Law of our republic, which comes from our tripartite Constitution and Bill of Rights, namely that Congress passes our laws, the Executive Branch enforces them and our Supreme Court adjudicates disputed measures.

By the time of the April 4, 1968 Martin Luther King assassination in Memphis, the Supreme Court decision of Brown vs the Board of Education and the heroic non violent marches of the period afterward had brought the initiation of the justice African Americans deserved under our precious Rule of Law.

A National Holiday in King’s honor and his massive memorial statue facing Thomas Jefferson’s memorial across the Reflecting Pool symbolizes how far his legacy and the rights of African Americans have come.

Let’s talk for a moment about the importance of the Rule of Law in our lives using a simple example. What is the single most important law observed by all resident in the USA, here legally or illegally?

How about choosing whether or not to stop at a red light? Or go forward on a green one or decide to chance running a yellow one?

One of my long time business colleagues whose personal life I had not known much about until he told me recently that his wife had driven forward on a green light and been hit by a driver who ran a red light. She was not killed but her head injury precipitated a permanent loss of her short term memory so that when she goes to any social gathering she will meet and introduce herself to the same persons more than once.

Certainly, our short term memory as a nation about the failure of the 1986 immigration amnesty must prompt us to wonder how a President who benefitted from those accomplishments of his civil rights forbears can so blatantly embrace another massive influx of alien immigrants at a time when over 20 million of his fellow citizens, many of them poor minorities, are unemployed or underemployed. The monthly numbers reflect the growing scarcity of good, higher paying jobs, fostered in part by both immigrant wage pressures and industrial automation.

Will, in a few decades, as can easily be projected, the majority of Americans be non white? Some 40% of us are already non white. Will this mean a better, fairer, more efficient government, which respects our Rule of Law? Only if we can maintain that Rule of Law.

Would importing millions of largely uneducated aliens, whose employment now often means jobs that resemble modern forms of slavery, be better?? These lower paid aliens do not dare to protest unfair treatment.

Can the wealthy mavens of Silicon Valley be persuaded to talk reasonably about the number of needed H 1B’s for smart techies from overseas, despite the fact that we educate more American citizen engineers that can find employment?

Congressman Jeff Denham (R-CA), a non Hispanic representing the heavily Hispanic 10th Congressional District in and around Modesto, California has joined House Democrats to forward CIR, mistakenly thinking, as do too many Republicans, that kowtowing to the Hispanic advocacy groups will save his seat and those of his party.

Presume Denham knows also the huge impetus for open borders coming from some businesses, the US Chamber of Commerce and Roman Catholic Bishops, whose blatantly selfish calls for open borders are heavily financed and unremitting in their greed and arrogance.

And we see the rise of high visibility African Americans to powerful places in all strata in American life. Condi Rice, after being Secretary of State in the Bush Administration, now has been admitted as the first female member of the Augusta National, where the Masters golf tournament is held. Many top business, government and other prominent positions have seen similar breakthroughs. Of course, one can also argue the lack of enough women in top places, but again we can hope that the merit of people, not their gender or color should be the criteria for advancement.

Finally, let us put to rest that hoary shibboleth that the illegal or legal immigration question has any relationship with the justified, brave, and legal civil rights movement for which King gave his life.

If civil disobedience by legal citizens, petitioning their legally elected government for rights granted under of our nation’s founding documents has anything to do with demanding full rights as citizens by following the act of illegally or even legally crossing the borders of our sovereign nation, then I wish someone brighter than me could explain it to me! African Americans were born here, illegal aliens are here illegally, not as dubbed by many, “undocumented immigrants.”

If all of us citizens believe in the progress we have made toward an American Dream since our founding in the 18th Century, then we must join together and embrace the words of that great American, Martin Luther King, before a crowd of more than 250,000 composed of many white citizens including my wife, on 28 August 1963, the final day of an historic March on Washington.

As the Oxford African American Studies Center tells us, “The keynote of this massive and unprecedented event, King’s speech was slated to last a mere seven minutes and, as with the Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (a speech to which “I Have a Dream” is often compared in terms of its significance as well as the power of its rhetoric), was composed not over a number of days or weeks, but rather in the final hours before its delivery.”

Now I suggest you read King’s in full, as it will underline my point that it does not embrace illegality or violence to attain the ends sought in a nation which must truly operate under a consistent rule of law as a principal bulwark for our future success.

We are not talking, as Obama and his supporters are, about the freedom to break the law, but the will to preserve it. If we run that red light and bash our innocent citizens with a crushing new level of aliens we do not need or want, that precious and cohesive basis for our uniqueness will be gone forever.

So as we approach the 60th anniversary of Dr. King’s Dream speech, let us renew our devotion to the dignity and purpose of our laws. Let us do so in his spirit of non violence and with renewed understanding of the central role those laws play in maintaining our social contract. The social contract can perhaps be best defined as creating for each citizen sufficient succor that we can renew our allegiance to the nation in which we live. This concept ideally binds all Americans and the many immigrants we have historically welcomed and will continue to welcome to work for the common good of our unique republic.

Did those brave civil rights marchers betray with their religious beliefs the precious separation of church matters and secular governance? I hope you agree that demanding, using non violent means, enforcement of laws passed by our Constitutional government permits means that one’s religious views or the music which accompanies the implementation of civil disobedience against enforcement of evil state laws cannot be ruled a violation of that church and state divide.

Yes, it often seems to be such a delicate balance and that is why the immigration reform issue is so divisive, weighing states’ rights vs Federal authority. However, the failure to enforce existing law by the Obama Administration and the growing turmoil from millions of illegal aliens seriously undermines our precious rights. These interlopers have no rights under our laws. To make them legal is the role of Congress, not the Administration and the will of American citizens, 65% of whom to not agree with the position of those power players noted above, the same folks who have tried to purchase our government to attain their selfish ends.

Here is Martin Luther King’s speech on the Washington Mall, August 28, 1963.

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone.

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

We cannot turn back.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest—quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification”—one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

And this will be the day—this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.

Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,

From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that:

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

Former US Navy officer, banker and venture capitalist, Donald A. Collins, a free lance writer living in Washington, DC., has spent over 40 years working for women’s reproductive health as a board member and/or officer of numerous family planning organizations including Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Guttmacher Institute, Family Health International and Ipas. Yale under graduate, NYU MBA. He is the author of From the Dissident Left: A Collection of Essays 2004-2013.

Segregation at All Costs: Bull Connor and the Civil Rights Movement

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