More than MLK

Is there anything worse than not getting credit for something you worked really hard for?

Real talk, there are a lot of things that are worse. But in those situations where our efforts are forgotten or overlooked, it can be quite hurtful. Maybe you’ve felt this on your soccer team, in a group project, or in a family situation. However it happens, it always manages to sting — even, and sometimes especially, when we know it shouldn’t bother us so much.

Black History Month is a time for us to take a step back and acknowledge the gift that Black people and Black culture are to our society and world. It presents us with an opportunity to learn more about how the Black community has always played a significant part in our overall American history, and to celebrate the lives of the many men and women that have made that possible.

Unfortunately, in the midst of the efforts we make to honor this month, we still overlook key figures throughout Black history. Especially in Christian communities, we tend to talk a lot about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but not really anybody else. While MLK’s contributions to the confrontation of injustice definitely should *not* be ignored, we *should* make an effort to get to know some of the other Black Christians that made the Kingdom of God present on Earth through justice work.

Full disclosure, I am no expert at this. If anything, I am continually reminded that I don’t know it all and that there is always a new thing for me to discover regarding the impact of Black Christians on Gospel-centered justice work. But as I seek to grow in my understanding of who and what has shaped these movements, I cannot ignore the less-talked-about people who have made their mark on our history. Here are a few that have been inspiring me lately:

Inmate Evangelist

Fannie Lou Hamer took her role in the civil rights movement as an activist and community organizer, focusing specifically on issues surrounding women and voting rights. She led non-violent groups to educate Black voters on their rights in the segregated South. Because she was Black and a woman in Mississippi, she faced great persecution throughout her working years. She was often met with violence and was imprisoned multiple times.

After one particular instance of being brutally beaten and jailed, she was offered assistance by the jailer’s wife and daughter in secret. It is said that Hamer shared Bible verses with the women and taught them about Jesus. Her life is a great reminder to us that following Jesus demands that we work toward justice, even in the face of hatred and violence. (Check out this really cool image of Fannie Lou Hamer by Kelly Latimore here!).

“Bull in a China Closet”

Hosea Williams was the right-hand man to MLK, and there was nothing Williams didn’t do — he was a scientist, politician, philanthropist, activist, community organizer, and an ordained minister. For nearly 50 years he led nonviolent campaigns to correct social, political, and economic injustice. He eventually founded Hosea Feed the Hungry and Homeless, an organization that provides basic services like meals, haircuts, and clothes for the needy in Atlanta. (The organization continues this work today under the name Hosea Helps through the leadership of William’s own daughter.)

Williams served in World War II and earned a Purple Heart after being the sole survivor of a Nazi bombing and spending a year hospitalized in Europe. When he came back to the U.S., he was beaten so badly for drinking out of a “whites only” fountain that his attackers thought he was dead. When he reflected on these near-death experiences, he said, “I realize why God, time after time, had taken me to death’s door, then spared my life … to be a general in the war for human rights and personal dignity.” Williams is a heroic example of listening to God’s voice when working for a world of peace and justice.

Sister in Selma

Sister Mary Antona Ebo was a convert who eventually became a Franciscan Sister of Mary, and was one of the first three Black women to enter the order. Sr. Ebo cemented her place in civil rights history because she was the only Black nun in her group and the first of the two Black sisters who marched at the famous 1965 demonstration in Selma. In 1967, she became the first Black woman to administer a hospital in the United States (St. Clare Hospital in Wisconsin). She was a founding member of the National Black Sisters’ Conference and served as its president. She also received the Conference’s esteemed Harriett Tubman award in 1989 for being “called to be a Moses to the people.”

When Sr. Ebo was at Selma, she told a reporter: “I am here because I am a Negro, a nun, a Catholic, and because I want to bear witness.” Truly, she is a reminder that every vocation within the Church is capable of working toward justice in Jesus’ name.

Voice for the Disinherited

Howard Thurman was an author, philosopher, and ordained minister who promoted the idea that activism should always be rooted in the Christian faith, guided by the Holy Spirit, and sustained in peaceful nonviolence. He penned numerous essays and books, the most famous of which is Jesus and the Disinherited. In that work, Thurman brilliantly interprets the Gospel to lay a foundation for nonviolent resits. This was the bedrock upon which Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would eventually base his own nonviolent civil rights movement.

Thurman wrote that a love rooted in the “deep river of faith” would help oppressed peoples overcome persecution. He said that river “may twist and turn, fall back on itself and start again, stumble over an infinite series of hindering rocks, but at last, the river must answer the call to the sea.” His incredibly rich philosophy is a beautiful example of how the Gospel is the only compelling source and the ultimate summit for every effort toward justice.

Give Them Their Due

While these brief descriptions of these folks do not fully illustrate the great gift of their lives, I pray that these incredible men and women will inspire you to reflect on the great impact of Black Christians on our Church and on our world. Moreover, I hope they will be the spark you need to take action toward justice work in Jesus’ name.

Photo source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA, “Participants, some carrying American flags, marching in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965,” by Peter Pettus, Photographer.