Faith Is at the Root of Black Struggle

Nannie Helen Burroughs, a Black woman leader in the National Baptist Church, once observed that the “Negro slave longed to be free.” “Freedom was the burden of their prayers and songs,” she continued, “Freedom was their one dream and ever increasing hope. God always rewards such soul hunger.” For the last few years, I have spent a great deal of time reflecting on what Burroughs described as the “soul hunger” of Black America—a deep desire for freedom and an unwavering faith that it is inevitable. I have expended a great deal of energy writing a deeply personal book reflecting on the subject.

My own search for freedom as a Black male living in the United States, occurred within a religious framework. My religious beliefs provided sustenance when trauma, tragedy, defeat and death could have otherwise overwhelmed me. It grounded me when I did not want to be my best self.

This faith was formed by Black Protestants, one of the most democratic traditions among the religious adherents in America. This Protestantism emerged from the creative way that Black folk used the English Reformation to read and rewrite themselves as Americans.

Out of those seeds Black Americans created radical self-identities drawn from the pages of the King James bible. They reshaped dire experiences of enslavement and American apartheid to demand civic and personal freedoms. They narrated their own lives from country road to high steeple; to storefront churches; from mosques to temples.

Now there is no doubt that many Black Americans are as skeptical about the relevance or importance of religion as the wider population. Yet even agnostics and atheists must acknowledge that religious communities historically provided a social good.

For Black people, religious communities offered a disinherited people a divinity and a holy sense of self that society denied them.

Every major struggle waged by Black America resides in the independent spaces built by Black Protestants. These men and women sacrificed and built beyond the realm of white political dominance and approval. Following the Civil War, for example, Black Americans built democratic religious institutions. These churches had national and international ties and connections. They also taught a bedraggled people to love themselves. And they also allowed members to openly debate with clerics, deacons, and elders regarding the prevailing issues of the day from male hierarchy and sexism to the intrinsic worth of the Blues.

Independently, Black Protestants envisioned a God who accepted with them as they were and accentuated their humanity in spite of the feelings of the larger culture. Certainly, there were intellectual limitations. But they never tried to limit others from speaking their truths. They exercised a freedom of conscience. As the work of religion scholar Judith Weisenfeld reveals, Black religion transcended the limitations of sociological categorizations. These associations transformed disparate lives in every way from clothing to name changes. Being called Brother, Deaconess, Mothers, Saint, and Sister is a reminder that being Black is and never was a liability.

What would American democracy be without the faith—and “soul hunger”--of Black people?

In 1963, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth urged Martin Luther King, Jr. to stage his campaign of nonviolence protest in Birmingham, Alabama, insisting “Confrontation is not bad. Goodness is supposed to confront evil.” Without Civil Rights lawyer and Episcopal priest Pauli Murray’s soul hunger, where would the women’s movement be? “Hope is a song in a weary throat,” she wrote. And soul hunger informed Fannie Lou Hamer’s organizing urgency: “You can pray until you faint, but unless you get up and try to do something, God is not going to put it in your lap.”

Soul hunger continues to drive some of today's leading Black activists and intellectuals. Rev. William Barber II’s progressive activism causes him to ask, “What is God’s always primary focus for His people? What transcends our labels, our political alliances, and our situational ethics? What is greater than the political majority at any given moment?” His answer, “justice!” And soul hunger drives Archbishop Carl Bean, the founder of the Unity Fellowship to provide services to underserved and at-risk populations. Bean’s church forced competing Black religious communities to demonstrate that Black HIV/AIDs victims are worthy of care and not condemnation. God’s love, Bean emphasizes, extends to all, including Black queer and transgender people.

Soul hunger runs deep like the rivers in Black America. A majority of Black people still speak in the language of faith. This should be remembered as we seek to build political alliances even among Black people. Democratic freedom and faith are at the root of Black struggle. Soul hunger, as Nannie Helen Burroughs coined it, has never been antithetical to democracy; it is the life blood.

About the Author

Randal Maurice Jelks is a Professor of American Studies and African and African American Studies at the University of Kansas. He is also an ordained Presbyterian clergy (PCUSA). He is the author of African Americans in the Furniture City: The Struggle for Civil Rights Struggle in Grand Rapids (The University of Illinois Press, 2006), which won the 2006 State History Award and Benjamin Elijah Mays, Schoolmaster of the Movement: A Biography (University of North Carolina Press 2012), winner of the 2013 Lillian Smith Book Award and the 2013 Literary Award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. His most recent book is Faith and Struggle in the Lives of Four African Americans (Bloomsbury Press, 2019).