The Civil Rights Movement and Womanist Theology

 

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The civil rights movement and womanist theology? Not much in common between the two, it seems. Maybe, maybe not! The thing is: God’s people are guided by Spirit into an unjust world where people are oppressed, not just through a particular movement, whether it is for civil rights or equity for women. People are oppressed beyond any movement. People are oppressed in everyday life, today, as well as in past struggles for liberation.

God is all about liberation from oppression, now and in the future. The battle for liberation is ongoing and never-ending. And God’s people — you and I — cannot follow Christ in “loving our neighbors as we love ourselves” unless we stand alongside people who are oppressed, unless we pour our lives into building a just society where every person is treated according to the well worn and well loved declaration that “all people are created equal.”

If you believe there is nothing in common between the civil rights movement and womanist theology, then you do not know much about The Rev. Dr. Prathia LauraAnn Hall (1940 – 2002), who was an undersung leader for civil rights, a bulwark of the black church in the United States and an advocate of the womanist vision of equity and equality.

In the recently published book, Freedom Faith: The Womanist Vision of Prathia Hall, Courtney Cox paints the portrait of Prathia Hall as a woman of deep conviction, courage and eloquence who literally embodied the longing for the rights of every person and the womanist vision of equality.

You may not know much about her, but Prathia Hall electrified audiences through her speaking and preaching.

I say to you our daughters and sons, it is in you! Every time you behold the world as it is and dare to dream of what it must become that’s the fire of freedom’s faith. . . Every time you grab hold of the United States of America and like Israel dare to wrestle and declare to it — We will not let you go until you bless us — That is freedom faith’s fire. It is in you — It’s in us.     — Prathia Hall

You may not know much about her, but Prathia Hall was an inspiring leader in the Southwest Georgia Project in Albany, Georgia, in the civil rights struggle in Selma, Alabama, and in the multiorganization Atlanta, Georgia project.

Prathia Hall literally changed the course of the civil rights movement. As a “firebrand” in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Hall labored tirelessly under the central guiding principle of her life, her activism and her ministry. Her life’s guiding principle was “Freedom Faith, the belief that God wants people to be free and equips and empowers those who work for freedom.”

In Hall’s work in door-to-door voter registration, in church-based educational programs, inspirational mass meetings, and through her scholarship and preaching, Freedom Faith found its ultimate expression in her womanist vision of the liberation of all people. For Hall, freedom was not only about the goals of the civil rights movement, it was about the many layered forms of oppression — racism, classism, sexism, ageism, heterosexism, denominationalism — all formidable obstacles to human rights.

You may not know her name, but Prathia Hall was listed in Ebony Magazine’s 1997 “15 Greatest Black Women Preachers.” It is said of Prathia Hall that her call to ministry was both her glory and her burden. Yet her preaching electrified masses of people bowed low by oppression.

They called us: ‘nigger,’ ‘winch,’ ‘buck,’ ‘slave,’ but out there in the brush arbors, the wilderness, and the woods, the God of our ancestors, the God we had known on the other side of the waters met us and whispered words in our ears, and stirred a song in our souls . . .     — Prathia Hall

You may not know much about Prathia Hall, but she was an indefatigable activist for human rights, a brilliant scholar, an engaging speaker, a compelling preacher, a distinguished theologian. Hall’s theology focused on liberation from all forms of oppression, and she did not shrink from the womanist theology that called out sexism and the duplicity of the Black Church in recognizing the call of women only in narrow and constricted ways. In an absolute articulation of her womanist vision of inclusion, Hall espoused a multidimensional structure of oppression. “Gender-based oppression,” she wrote, “isn’t a trivial inconvenuence. It’s human devastation.” As an insider, choosing to remain in ministry in the Baptist Church, Hall’s courage and conviction never ceased from criticizing a Church that opposed racism, but tolerated sexism.

It absolutely boggles my mind as well as grieves my spirit that brothers, with whom I have stood side by side in the struggle, brothers with whom I have bowed, knelt, prayed, worked, struggled, gone to jail, dodged bullets, and caught bullets, claim to be unable to make the transition from the critique of race-based oppression to the critique of gender and class-based oppression.    — Prathia Hall

You may not know much about Prathia Hall, but her very soul was embroiled in the civil rights drama. In the summer of 1962, four black churches in Georgia’s Lee and Terrell Counties, all associated with the movement, were burned by white supremacists.

Hall and other SNCC workers wept together in the ashes of the Mount Olive Baptist Church. The next day the SNCC received a phone call that Martin Luther King, Jr. intended to visit Albany to attend a prayer vigil over the ashes of Mount Olive Baptist Church in Sasser. According to the New York Times, “As the sun sets across the cotton fields, some fifty Negroes and two whites met at Mount Olive for a prayer vigil. Joining hands, they sang softly, ‘We Shall Overcome.’”

After the song, Prathia Hall led the group in prayer, her voice breaking in grief. According to oral tradition, Hall repeated the phrase “I have a dream,” each time followed by a specific vision of racial justice. After the service, King asked for her permission to use the “I have a dream” phrase, which she granted. From the oral evidence gathered from several witnesses, one can definitely make a case for Prathia Hall as the source of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.      — Courtney Cox, Freedom Faith: The Womanist Vision of Prathia Hall

You may not know much about Prathia Hall, but in the pages of Freedom Faith: The Womanist Vision of Prathia Hall, author Courtney Cox lays bare the world of this fascinating woman of God. She presents Prathia Hall through various lenses: Christian minister, liberation theologian, civil rights activist and leader, professor and scholar, preacher and speaker, mother, daughter, wife, agitator, womanist theologian.

Until now, you may not have known much about Prathia Hall, but many notables spoke of her abilities:

One in a million . . . A model that needs to be lifted up in every seminary of all races . . . so people can get a glimpse of what someone who has really said yes to ministry and who went to her grave living that ministry daily.     — Jeremiah Wright

The best preacher in the United States, possessing proven ability to exegete, illustrate, celebrate and apply the scriptures healingly to the problems, pains and perplexities of the people who sit ready to hear a word from Yahweh.     — Charles Adams, former president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention

. . . She was known for her commitment, her dedication, her stick-to-it-ness, for hanging in there, for never giving up or giving in.      — Rep. John Lewis

So what about the civil rights movement and womanist equality? Is there any commonality between them? Certainly there is commonality — both are never-ending struggles for justice, because we are a country where various groups of people are still denied their civil rights and woman are still suppressed and oppressed. Both movements — and many other struggles for justice — require our commitment, our resolve, our persistence, our courage, our compassion, our best efforts and our faithfulness to God.

At least for me, Prathia Hall’s life begs several questions:

What is it that I am passionate about, willing to follow God with courage to fulfill that passion?

Is there an injustice I must stand against?

Is there any oppression, any wrong, that I am compelled to confront?

Is there anything I care about deeply enough that I will dig deep into myself to find the courage to defend it?

Fair questions, I think, for those who are trying to follow God into places of need! Compelling questions for those who are trying to follow God in offering compassionate  care to the oppressed and hurting people who need us! Compelling questions for those who are trying to follow God in freeing people who live in various forms of bondage!

These are urgent questions for God followers!

I pray that I am able to sit with those questions and respond to them boldly as an act of my faith. I pray that for you, too.

Finally, do we dare we ask what will be our reward for seeking justice for the oppressed people around us? Probably not, yet this beloved passage of Scripture does speak of both our call from God and what we will receive for our commitment to our call.

. . . Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear . . .

Then my favor will shine on you like the morning sun, and your wounds will be quickly healed. I will always be with you to save you; my presence will protect you on every side. When you pray, I will answer you. When you call to me, I will respond.

If you put an end to oppression, to every gesture of contempt, and to every evil word; if you give food to the hungry and satisfy those who are in need, then the darkness around you will turn to the brightness of noon. And I will always guide you and satisfy you with good things. I will keep you strong and well. You will be like a garden that has plenty of water, like a spring of water that never goes dry.

— Isaiah 58:6-11 Good News Translation (GNT)

So let us follow God into every place of need, every place of injustice, every place where oppression has raised its evil head. Let us follow God — as an embodiment of Christ’s love and compassion — until that day when “the darkness around us turns to the brightness of noon.”

May God make it so. May God find us faithful. Amen.

 


I offer you this music to listen to as you spend time in prayer and meditation

 

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