by Adedeji Sunday Akintayo, Community Worker, Beaconsfield United Church
After 11 months of anxiety, an American jury turned in a guilty verdict on the 2020 killing of George Floyd, an African American by the Police. It found Derek Chauvin, a white officer of the Minneapolis Police Department guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. It marked a conclusion of judicial consequences for a killing that sparked protests in the United States and around the world.
When a viral video clip showed the Police Officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes 29 seconds, a world already indignant at COVID-19 restrictions burst into protests at the mistreatment of blacks. Long held discontent at negative racial profiling and injustice faced by blacks in America exploded into mass demonstrations. Police brutality and killing of unarmed blacks became the focus of the George Floyd protests.
The protests that followed the killing of George Floyd cut across several cities of the world. The deeply felt resentment at the killing overtook whatever sense of caution had been inculcated in populations about the pandemic. Crowds indignantly disregarded COVID-19 protocols and gathered in over 60 countries across 7 continents to express outrage and call for an end to systemic racism.
These crowds were galvanized by protest groups acting under a broad banner called Black Lives Matter.
Black Lives Matter – Origin and Structure
The Black Lives Matter hashtag is credited to Alicia Garza. While responding to a social media post on the acquittal of George Zimmerman who killed 17yr old Trayvor Martins, Garza wrote in 2013, “I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter… Our lives matter.” Patrisse Cullors shared the comment with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and together with another activist Opal Tometi, founded what has become known as the Black Lives Matter movement.
While being a hashtag and a rallying cry, several organizations also came to be known as the Black Lives Matter movement. An important distinction must be made here between Black Lives Matter as a movement and the Black Lives Matter organization.
The idea and structure behind Black Lives Matter need be unbundled for fuller comprehensibility. This is important because this article seeks to examine the movement in light of the civil liberties struggle and show how religion has influenced its understanding and working.
Several organizations banded together to form the Black Lives Matter movement. Some of them are the NAACP Legal Defence and Educational Fund, the UndocuBlack Network, the Movement for Black Lives, Colour of Change and Black Alliance for Just Immigration.
Civil Rights Movement As ‘Father’ of Black Lives Matter
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement appears like a resounding remake of the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s in the United States. The American Civil War brought about the end of slavery but blacks continued to suffer deep-seated and institutional exclusion from mainstream America. They continued to be treated like second class citizens and suffered humiliating segregation in public utilities and other places.
Over half a century after the signing of the Civil Rights Act, the twin issues of racism and discrimination continue to take forefront in American society. Today’s Black Lives Matter movement is but a continuation of the historical black liberation movement. At least the issues have not changed in substance. Equality, social justice and integration remain key demands.
The history of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s which is precursor of the Black Lives Matter, is inextricably intertwined with the black Church. Many of its central figures and promoters were from the church. (Lafayette Bernard 2004) Perhaps its most iconic figure, Martin Luther King Jr was a Minister of the American Baptist Church and delivered his first sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church Atlanta Georgia where he became ordained. It is noteworthy that he spent his entire life in the church and this shaped his civil consciousness immeasurably. For instance, the ideology of non-violence which he brought to bear on the movement may be traced both to King’s admiration of the work of Mahatma Gandhi and the scriptural teachings of Christianity.
In Martin Luther King Jr, the role of the church in the Civil Rights Movement is personified. His life illustrates the connection between the operative support of the church and the organization behind the Civil Rights Movement.
Contributions of Religion to the Civil Rights Movement
However, beyond Martin Luther King Jr’s personal contributions, the Church provided institutional support for the movement. Social communication networks, audience, leadership, and money were some key support provided by the church which proved invaluable to the movement. (Calhoun-Brown, Alison 2000). Examples may be seen in the Ebenezer Church Atlanta which hosted several civil rights meetings like the NAACP conference in 1956 to discuss segregation. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference which was headed by Martin Luther King served as the political arm of the black church. (Morris 1981). The Church in the Civil Rights Movement was also the venue of civil rights meetings and provided ideological direction in the sermons preached from her pulpits.
However, despite the gains of the Civil Rights Movement as evidenced in the Civil Rights Act 1964, Voting Rights Act 1965 and the Fair Housing Act 1968, all of which sought to de-codify racism in America, discrimination remains endemic. This discrimination dovetails into negative racial profiling of blacks as criminals which often forms the backbone of Police shooting of unarmed blacks even in the most unwarranted circumstances.
Over a long list of cases, the Black Lives Matter movement has documented the itchy fingers of the Police on the trigger when unarmed blacks are in their sights. This is interpreted in dark racial tones as the new form of discrimination and indeed, this is one of the yet unresolved challenges of the black emancipation struggle. This institutional racism gave birth to today’s Black Lives Matter movement.
While this article has compared the Civil Rights Movement with today’s Black Lives Matter movement and indeed posited that the former gave birth to the latter in a timeline of struggle, one very important difference must be spelt out clearly – the degree of influence which religion exerts in contemporary black protest movements differs considerably. There is no gainsaying that the influence of religion is much diminished today. According to Pew Research Center, while most black worshippers see a role for religion in the struggle against racial discrimination, today’s generation may not be so inclined. There is a creeping atheism that is indicated by 21% of Black Americans having no religious affiliation. On the surface of it, this would mean a disconnect between religion and today’s black liberation consciousness but a deeper look into that survey shows that “there is a broad consensus among Black Americans of all faiths that predominantly Black churches have played a valuable role in the struggle for racial equality in U.S. society. “ (Pew Research Center 2021)
Therefore, a link between Christianity and civil rights activism serves to raise consciousness and increase the bar of engagement of racial issues. Indeed, religion can be weaponized against systemic racism.
Even though Police Officer Derek Chauvin has been convicted for the murder of George Floyd, it must be said that systemic racism still exists all over the world. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau admitted even anti-Black racism in Canada in his tweet after the judgment where he averred that the work (to end racism) will continue.
Dealing with Inequality
Different countries adopt different means of eradicating racial inequalities and its dangerously divisive consequences. Canada, for instance, has a well-established diversity profile which bears some examination. It became the first country to establish an official policy of multiculturalism in 1971 and has followed that up with several legislations like the Canadian Multiculturalism Act 1988.
In Canada, the church is taking the leading role in providing support for anti-racism. In the United Church of Canada for instance, diversity programs are pursued with open-minded sincerity. Immigrants are welcome with true Christian charity and absorbed into Canadian society. In the wake of the George Floyd judgment, the United Church of Canada shared a moving prayer on its Instagram handle, a prayer which clearly indicates its support for the dignity of black people. It vowed not to rest until Black people are treated with love and respect and no longer terrorized or over-policed in their thoughts and actions. Indeed, the Church demonstrates its beliefs by putting its money where its mouth is. The Beaconsfield United Church in Montreal, for example, has a support program called (BUCRISP) which serves as a platform of integration of refugees into the Canadian way of life by meeting some of their important spiritual and material needs. Such practical programs contribute to tearing down the walls of racial division and actively promote community cohesion.
Beyond Christianity, how has religion contributed to civil rights movements in general? One useful instance may be mentioned here. Mahatma Gandhi’s struggle for India’s independence from British colonial rule was powered in no small measure by the Satyagraha movement. It involved the principles of non-violence and an unyielding hold on the truth. Gandhi organized the Indian resistance around this principle and saw the end of colonial rule in his country.
How Can Religion Help?
There are other ways which religion can help bring about global harmony among all races. As Patrisse Marie Cullors-Brignac, one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter organization said, “The fight to save your life is a spiritual fight.” (Farag , Heber 2015). Even though she spoke in specific context of the Black Lives Matter movement, the spiritual nature of such a fight to restore racial dignity is one all religions must join. Social harmony creates accommodations for economic and political development and must be pursued with transparency and vigour.
One obvious way religion can engender racial harmony is by a careful self-regulation of the tone of sermons preached to their adherents. It is very important that hate speech and racially motivated incitement become anathema in religious speeches. Indeed, humanity must become man’s first religion.
Religion must also contribute to global harmony by emphasizing equality in its outlook and body language. In Christianity, Peter’s vision on the rooftop in Acts 10 is a classic message from God on how not to discriminate. Verse 15 expresses God’s desire that His creation must be paid equal dignity. Also, the book of Galatians 3:28 deepens the Christian conversation on unity and equality of all races before God.
Inter-faith marriages are also invaluable in creating religious harmony in communities. This may be challenging in states that lean towards a theocracy but it is argued that in a fast integrating global community, certain barriers can be broken by encouraging young people of different faiths to marry. The mutual understanding this marital fusion of faiths can produce is invaluable in preaching the message of the oneness of humanity. However, this would work best at community level. The Beaconsfield United Church is consciously expanding the horizons of interfaith harmony by recently created Men’s group and interfaith ministry focused on using an accord between all religions as a tool for integrating immigrants from Africa into the Canadian way of life.
Religion can be a force of good in shaping black consciousness. Adherents of any religion usually surrender their will to God who is believed to be a just God. Properly shaped, religion and religious messages can be both a buffer against racial discrimination and be a weapon against it. Religion will continue to play a visible role in black movements because a great preponderance of its teachings are in consonance with love, harmony and equality.
In the words of Hebah Farrag, “The fight for Black liberation has always been a faith movement, and Black Lives Matter is no different.”
The whole essence of the Black Lives Matter movement is to secure a more egalitarian society. The George Floyd judgment is a major achievement in the global effort to rid the world of injustice against people of colour. As a human institution, religion will continue to play a dominant role in the evolution of such movements.
- Calhoun-Brown, Allison Political Science and Politics, Jun., 2000, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Jun., 2000), pp. 168- 174
- Farag, Heber, The Role of the Spirit in #BlackLivesMatter Movement (2015) https://crcc.usc.edu/the-role-of-the-spirit-in-blacklivesmatter-movement/ Retrieved April 25, 2021
- Lafayette Bernard (2004) The Role of Religion in the Civil Rights Movements https://cdn.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/kf/rel_Bernard_Lafayette.pdf?_ga=2.262401679.2068044.1619114695-1043705087.1619114695
- Morris Aldon, 1981. “Black Southern Sit-In Movement: An Analysis of Internal Organizations” American Sociological Review 46: 744-67
- Pew Research Center, (2021) https://www.pewforum.org/2021/02/16/faith-among-black-americans/ Retrieved April 25, 2021.