The International Roots of the Civil Rights Movement
On May 2, Sarah Azaransky delivered a guest lecture previewing the work in her new book, This Worldwide Struggle: Religion and the International Roots of the Civil Rights Movement (Oxford University Press 2017), which studies a network of black American Christian intellectuals and activists who looked to independent movements, particularly in India and West Africa, for a model to inspire an American racial justice campaign.
By comparing racism in the U.S. with imperial oppression abroad and recognizing the continued global struggle among people of color in the face of white supremacy, Azaransky discussed the idea of black Christian internationalism. She then emphasized the importance of being attentive to the category of religion itself when studying its role in the international civil rights movement, concluding with one pivotal discussion between theologian Howard Thurman and Indian civil rights leader Mahatma Gandhi in the mid-1930s and the profound religious and political reflection that resulted.
In her discussion of this momentous exchange, Azaransky recounts:
“Thurman followed up and asked Gandhi, ‘how are we to train individuals or communities in this difficult art of nonviolence?’ Thurman answered by describing in detail ahimsa, or non injury and also noncooperation, and what these might look like in the context of Jim Crow.
It was at the end of this meeting that Gandhi proclaimed, ‘it may be through black Americans that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.’
So here we have Gandhi’s benediction of the later movement, and this exchange… shows the significance really, too, of critique and engagement to building effective social movements. Certainly it strikes me, too, that these are the kinds of lessons that we need today as we’re developing our own—as Thurman would want us to—disciplines, methods, and techniques toward a more just social order.”
Listen to the entire lecture through its resource page here.
Sarah Azaransky is an Assistant Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary. Her recent publications include This Worldwide Struggle: Religion and the International Roots of the Civil Rights Movement (OUP 2017) and The Dream is Freedom: Pauli Murray and American Democratic Faith (OUP 2011).