Washington D.C. August 1963, 250,000 people walked together from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. Starting with celebrities and musicians performing at the Monument, and ending with speeches from multiple popular civil rights and religious leaders. The ending program lasted three hours, standing side by side listening to the speeches and occasional shouts of enthusiasm and support from the crowd. All of it being wrapped up with Martin Luther King Jr’s the closing words of “And when this happens…we will be able to speed up that day when all 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!’”
Christians have had a complicated relationship with black lives, with one side backing discrimination and lynchings, and the other supporting emancipation and civil rights. You would think that with such a big difference in treatments from Christians that black lives activists would be at least a little hesitant in incorporating the religion into their speeches and driving forces, but you would be mistaken. In fact in the early abolitionist days, Protestant Christianity was one of the movement’s biggest supporters. Quakers were a Protestant sect that radically pushed for the idea that God loved all people, regardless of their physical features or social status. And in the 1830, the majority of abolitionists were Northerners, white, and religiously went to church. But that doesn’t mean African American’s weren’t active, in fact they were just as active as the white churches, both inside the church and out. Some of these people were like David Walker, an educated black man with a passion for freedom, who wrote an Appeal strongly criticizing Christians that had slaves, and encouraged slave uprisings. Or some of these people were like Nat Turner, who through the readings of the Old Testament, led an uprising in Virginia that became the only sustained revolt that proved effective, if not bloody.
While there were a number of ways that Christianity was connected to the movement. Martin Luther King Jr. was especially fond of the freedom songs that popped up because of the civil rights movement, calling them “the soul of the movement”, and it’s understandable why. Music can speak to people in some ways that just can’t be explained. Just like in writing, the author puts their heart and soul into every piece they make, and oftentimes, it can be heard. Going back the 1780s and 90s, Reverend John Newton, who had at one point participated in the slave trade as a sailor changed to renounce the practice and preach about its horrors. At one point in his sermon, singing the line in the hymn “Amazing Grace” about how God had “saved a wretch like me”, he was speaking quite personally. And knowing that, the song in that moment carries so much more weight. That line’s meaning becomes so much deeper, and that’s because it makes it personal.
Nowadays white Christian leaders are trying to limit their control in the movement, so as to let black leaders represent themselves and share a better personal understanding of their side of the Black Lives Matter movement. But that doesn’t mean Christian references are no longer used. Like I mentioned before, there certainly weren’t just white Christians in the movement, and religion has proved to still be an effective and powerful tool for rallying people and keeping up courage. This could be because religion is very much a personal understanding of something that gets practiced within part of a larger community. Creating a situation where people can feel both personal attachment and communal attachment to what they are gathering for. Combine that with the aspect of music, and you’ve got quite an inspiring piece at your fingertips.
Though that is not the only reason hymns are popular in the Black Lives Matter movement, they have a practical side to them as well. Before hymn books were widely accessible, congregations would often have to think of other ways to make it so that everyone could sing. In that way, lots of hymns were made to be easy to remember and catch on to, sometimes incorporating a call and response, similar to the chants that are heard during protests. It all comes back together, basically, Christian hymns are used in the Black Lives Matter movement because of their ability to connect to that personal community that is found in religion and pull it out to create another personal community within the Black Lives Matter community.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Nat Turner”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 7 Nov. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Nat-Turner. Accessed 21 May 2021.
Editors, History. com. “March on Washington.” History.Com, A&E Television Networks, 16 Mar. 2021, www.history.com/topics/black-history/march-on-washington#:~:text=The%20March%20on%20Washington%20was,challenges%20and%20inequalities%20faced%20by.
March on Washington (Program), 08/28/1963; Bayard Rustin Papers; John F. Kennedy Library; National Archives and Records Administration.
Wilson, Jennifer. “The Many Sounds of Black Lives Matter.” Critical Mass, The New Republic, 23 June 2020, newrepublic.com/article/158255/many-sounds-black-lives-matter.
Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. “American Abolitionism and Religion.” Divining America, TeacherServe, National Humanities Center., nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/nineteen/nkeyinfo/amabrel.htm. Accessed 21 May 2021.