Great Atheists of the Civil Rights Movement
I have a (secular) dream
In the story of the civil rights movement, pride of place is often given to religion and preachers—not least because Martin Luther King Jr. so powerfully used religious ideas to make the case for racial justice. Writing for the Religion News Service, Kimberly Winston points out that there were plenty of African-American atheists involved in the movement, but they’re often overlooked.
Take A. Philip Randolph. Today he’s hardly remembered, but Randolph was a prominent labor leader who organized the historic March on Washington at which MLK gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. King himself called him “the chief.” He was also an atheist. “In 1973,” Winston writes, “Randolph signed the Humanist Manifesto II, a public declaration of Humanist principles. He is reported to have said of prayer: ‘Our aim is to appeal to reason….We consider prayer nothing more than a fervent wish; consequently the merit and worth of a prayer depend upon what the fervent wish is.’”
Overall, Winston argues, the civil rights movement was more spiritually diverse than we now tend to think. Randolph and other African-American atheists, Winston writes, don’t fit into the grand civil rights narrative, which sees the movement as the work of mainly “religious—mainly Christian—people.” Their atheism, and its relationship to their activism, is rarely discussed, in part because African-Americans today are among the most religious groups in the United States.
Just how atheistic were the civil rights atheists? Winston quotes Juan Floyd-Thomas, a professor at Vanderbilt who’s just written a book on black humanism. He says that, if they were alive today, many atheistic civil rights leaders “would not be too far out of step” with today’s uncompromising New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens.