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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Niebhur, Prophecy, and Civil Rights


In liberalism’s heyday, the progressive movement struggled to inspire supporters because it lacked the same appeal to tradition which conservatism had [1]. As liberal morale decreased, Arthur Schlesinger attempted to recover liberalism’s optimism in creating a free and happy society [2]. Yet Schlesinger’s optimism served as an obstacle to address the dominant issue of injustice in America: racism. “Liberals treated racism’s occasional, and by all accounts decreasing, outbreaks of violence as crimes that could in principle be contained or treated while America went about its business of economic growth and cultural improvement” [3]. Social change for blacks would not come about through the work of progressives, but rather, a religious movement within the African-American community [4].

A two-pronged theological vision undergirded the Civil Rights Movement, exemplified in the thought of Martin Luther King, Jr. The first was a rejection of liberalism’s optimistic anthropology in favor of recognizing humanity’s sinfulness along the lines of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr [5]. The second was the prophetic tradition of the historic black church drawn from the Old Testament, which professed the moral decline of society, an “indictment of institutions”, society’s rejection of prophets, and “rebellion and renewal motivated by prophetic truth” [6]. This two-pronged theological vision would serve as the backbone of the movement which would successfully earn legal equality for African-Americans.

The Civil Rights Movement was an example of contextualization. It served to present the good news of Christ to the pressing needs of African-Americans in the midst of serious and pervasive social injustice. Drawing from the Old Testament prophets, prominent African-American pastors spoke against the sins of society. Their recognition of humanity’s sinfulness agrees with Scripture’s own declarations regarding humanity: “There is no one who is righteous, not even one” [7]. Scripture’s indictment did not exclude the Civil Rights leaders. They recognized their own sins and the corrupting influence of political engagement. Their prophetic cries against society’s sins and their self-reflection on their own proclivities toward corruption sustained a nonviolent protest movement in the face of violence which went on to successfully reform a nation’s laws and revive the American church.

[1] Chappell, David L. A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. 12-13.

[2] Ibid. p. 27.

[3] Ibid. p. 36.

[4] Ibid. p. 87.

[5] Ibid. p. 46.

[6] Ibid. pp. 46-47.

[7] Romans 3:10 NRSV


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