CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVISTS ILLUSTRATED FURTHER POWER OF PRAYER
The most "potent tool" in the American civil rights movement’s arsenal wasn’t demonstrations or boycotts, or even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or other charismatic leaders, but rather another source of power during those turbulent times, a Bluffton University audience heard Jan. 11.
In an unprecedented move, a grass-roots movement within the movement took the risk of using prayer to create crisis that caught political leaders’ attention and ultimately brought change, said Dr. Tobin Miller Shearer, a University of Montana historian speaking at a Bluffton Forum.
Most contemporary retellings of the era focus on speeches given, as well as demonstrations and boycotts led, by King, Ralph Abernathy and other charismatic men, Shearer noted. But the power of prayer—which he called "an exercise of power" by those who employed it—suggests that use of such an "everyday resource" in concert with risk-taking can lead to a future "no one thought possible," even without an inspirational leader, he said.
The effective form of prayer practiced by some activists was performative, which Shearer defined as directed to a surrounding audience as well as to a deity. Citing examples from Albany, Ga., in 1962, Orangeburg, S.C., the following year and two from Alabama, in 1965 and 1967, he said that prayer, in each place, served not to defuse a situation but instead to create or escalate a crisis—a turning point in history, in these instances, where the status quo was no longer an option.
In Orangeburg, Shearer related, a group of parents and teachers gathered on a sidewalk in October 1963 to pray for their children to be protected from police. On their knees, dressed in church clothes and, in some cases, carrying Bibles, members of the assemblage wanted others to know they were praying even if they couldn’t be heard, he pointed out. Through the public prayer, they got media attention—and arrested.
Four years later, in Bessemer, Ala., a group protesting the jailing of King knelt on the pavement and prayed in the rain, again garnering attention. The next day, he was moved out of the Ku Klux Klan stronghold and back to Birmingham, said Shearer, equating the situation with a gun-related crisis created earlier that year in Sacramento, Calif., when armed Black Panthers marched on the state capitol to protest legislation to limit the right to bear arms in public.
The incidents in Albany, Ga., and, in February 1965, Selma, Ala., pitted civil rights activists against a police chief and a county sheriff, respectively. Each time, leaders led pointed prayers for the activists’ antagonist, ultimately triggering use of force that was captured by cameras, the historian said. "Prayer had played a role in increasing tension and destabilizing the situation," he added, saying that in Selma, King lieutenant and prayer leader C.T. Vivian "succeeded better than he had ever imagined."
Activists also used prayer for protection, Shearer said, but on "Bloody Sunday" in Selma, March 7, 1965, they were struck while praying, also furthering their cause. "Prayer got the attention of those around them," he maintained, referring to it as a "threat" to the established order.
The practice wasn’t limited to the South, either. Shearer cited a 1962 photo from Cairo, Ill., where John Lewis, now a Georgia congressman, and children were pictured praying on a sidewalk as part of an effort to integrate a swimming pool. Their posture, suggesting that God was on their side, challenged the belief of Northerners who, while still opposing integration, thought of themselves as upright citizens supported by God, he said.
Shearer is co-founder and former director of Damascus Road, the national anti-racism training collective that’s active at Bluffton and elsewhere in the Mennonite community. He is also a writer whose most recent book, "Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries," was published last year.
Bluffton public relations, 1/13/11