by Jesus Christ Savior | “We must obey God rather than men.” Acts 5:29 (Video: A Focal Point in the Civil Rights Movement by Museum of the Bible)
The American Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776 read all men are created equal, but slavery persisted. How could the Revolutionary War be fought for freedom without granting freedom to all? The 1861-1865 American Civil War reflected the Christian heritage of our Nation, for the moral issue of slavery troubled the hearts of Americans from our very beginning. The Civil War ended slavery, but left the USA with segregation.
The non-violent religious movement of the 1950s and 1960s emerged as the civil rights movement in the USA, which finally afforded racial equality for African-Americans, one hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation! The crusade arose within Negro Churches, the center of their life. African-Americans had begun to receive recognition in the fields of art, music, and sports. The arrest in Montgomery, Alabama of Rosa Parks, who was detained on December 1, 1955 for refusing to move to the back of the bus for a white person, sparked the drive for civil rights. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., the young and eloquent pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, was elected President of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which had begun the Montgomery Bus boycott. The boycott lasted 381 days until a Supreme Court decision ended segregation on city buses. Reverend King then organized 60 pastors into the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to foster civil rights.
The Bible: A Focal Point in the Civil Rights Movement
St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas distinguished between just and unjust laws. Non-violent civil disobedience, advocated by John Locke, Henry David Thoreau, and Mahatma Gandhi, was employed by civil rights leaders against oppressive and unjust civil laws. In general, one is obligated to obey civil laws that are just (Matthew 22:21, Romans 13:1-7), but first one must obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29) in the event of unjust laws, such as Pharaoh’s daughter v. the Pharaoh (Exodus 1:15-2:10); Rahab v. the King of Jericho (Joshua 2:1-21); Shadrach, Meshach, and Abegnego v. King Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3:19-30); the Maji v. King Herod (Matthew 2:1-23); and Peter and the Apostles v. the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:5-22 and 5:17-42). Law itself is not meant for the righteous (I Timothy 1:9). The early Christians refused to obey the Romans and suffered martyrdom rather than worship the Emperor.
President John F. Kennedy announced on nationwide television on June 11, 1963 that he would submit Civil Rights legislation the following week. In his powerful Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Reverend King quoted Scripture and emphasized the words of St. Augustine that an unjust law is no law at all. He urged non-violent protest to turn the tide in favor of racial equality. The March on Washington, D. C. on August 28, 1963 brought people from all over the nation. Peter, Paul, and Mary sang If I Had A Hammer and Blowin’ In The Wind from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial prior to the address, capturing the peaceful spirit of the event. Martin Luther King Jr. then gave his famous I Have A Dream speech to the Washington National Mall, a speech that crystallized the religious civil rights movement.
Our anonymous author is a physician and a Masters graduate in Theology and Christian Ministry from Franciscan University, Steubenville, Ohio. He teaches Sunday Bible Class at St. James Catholic Church and serves both Pastoral Care and the Medical Staff at St. Joseph’s Hospital.