Faith Formation

Civil Rights Sunday, Sept. 15: Dignified Social Action, Forgiveness, and Working for Justice

November 6, 2014
Lifelong Formation

Today I am pleased to welcome Ryan K. Smith as guest blogger. Ryan is a freelance writer, primarily for the Chester/Community Spirit Newspaper in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. He is a lifelong Episcopalian and member of St. George St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Philadelphia. More of his work can be found at


Reflecting on the Impact of Christ on the Civil Rights Movement

September 15th marks the anniversary of one of the most horrific events to unfold during the Civil Rights Movement when four little girls were killed in the infamous bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.

It is said that the theme for the service at 16th Street Baptist on that Sunday was “A Love That Forgives.” As people who believe that Jesus was love personified (John 3:16), on this day, it would be good to reflect on the impact of Christ on the Movement.

Firstly, the Church’s roots in the Movement were documented by Aldon Morris, sociologist at Northwestern University and writer of The Origins of the Civil Right Movement, who cited Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s labeling of Sunday church services as “the most segregated hour in America.” He wrote, “(King) felt the church hadn’t stood up enough and supported the movement.  They were needing allies from many different groups, and with the movement rooted in moral and religious precepts it made a great deal of sense to reach out to various religious groups.”

In, Gospel of Freedom, author John Rieder examined King’s moving Letter From A Birmingham Jail, expressing that King’s letter (strewn with biblical references) helped to highlight the contradiction of Jim Crow to religious values held by institutions and spurred them to action, creating a “confluence of a major part of the black movement with the larger ferment in American Christianity and Judaism.”

The impact of the spiritual community on the Civil Rights Movement cannot be overstated. Many of its leaders were religious leaders (such as Rev. Canon Father Robert DuBose, former pastor of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Philadelphia as a younger priest in the South), and the love and peacefulness that helped define the Movement are deeply rooted in the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Author of King’s Vision of Justice: Rooted in the Bible, David J. Lull wrote, “Dr. King often pointed out that it was Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that inspired the ‘dignified social action’ of the civil rights movement. His notion of ‘creative suffering’ – borne by civil rights activists who endured persecution and police brutality – came from his Christian faith in the redemptive suffering of Jesus.”

Christ’s “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 5 is said to be integral to the “Love That Forgives” lesson that never took place that fateful Sunday in ’63.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

Also, said to be part of the lesson’s foundation were Jesus’ words as he died for our salvation on the cross. Beaten to a bloody pulp and ridiculed beyond measure, Christ still made a point to express love of his persecutors. On death’s door, Jesus pleaded, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34),” before soldiers gambled for pieces of his clothes.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the brutal interruption of that Sunday’s lesson, it’s important to look at the spiritual benefits of forgiveness. In Matthew 5, Jesus asks, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?” To me, this means that to the best person you can be, you have to forgive those who have done you wrong.

As Christians, we try to work to create Heaven on Earth for God’s people, but ultimately, our goal is to get to Heaven regardless of what happens during this earthly life. The words of the spiritual “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” come to mind. God is watching all of us, and I believe he is keeping track of how “godly” we act.

Though King, those little girls and so many others who either lost their lives or were wrongfully jailed or hurt in some way during the Civil Rights Movement, the Movement was perpetuated in a godly manner. I believe God noticed and they are enjoying everlasting life with Him because of it. That’s the goal for every believer, regardless of race, gender, class, etc.: everlasting life.

Also, from personal experience, spending your time despising people for the wrong things they’ve done to you takes a lot of energy. That energy could be spent on something more constructive for your own life or someone else’s.

If the Freedom Fighters spent as much time lamenting and speaking down on their opponents, they surely wouldn’t have made the progress that they did. Even before the Civil Rights Movement, Absalom Jones would not have gone on to found St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Philadelphia (the nation’s first Black Episcopal Church) had he and friend Richard Allen (founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church [AME]) spent their time hating the people at St. George’s who physically removed him from the sanctuary while trying to pray.

Let that hate go and go do what you believe God intends for you to do and live the way He wants you to live. With the time you spend angry at enemies, work and pray so that you and people you help can experience God’s love forever.


This year marks significant landmark anniversaries in the struggle to end discrimination, provide equal rights and combat racism: the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the 50th anniversary of the pivotal March on Washington, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Medgar Evers, the 100th birthday of Rosa Parks.  In 1964 the Civil Rights Act was signed into law.

The Episcopal Church will host and produce the 90 minute live forum, Fifty Years Later: The State of Racism in America, in collaboration with the Diocese of Mississippi. The forum will be held at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral in Jackson, MS beginning at 1 pm Central (2 pm Eastern, noon Mountain, 11 am Pacific, 10 am Alaska, 9 am Hawaii).

Children in Episcopal Churches are asked to submit creative expressions in response to their lessons on Civil Rights Sunday.  Pictures of the artwork should be emailed to me,

David Stickley

Formation Associate

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