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Sit-ins and other forms of protest go way back

The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins sets the context for Black protest during the most recent ‘A Matter of Faith’ podcast

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins is Associate Director of Advocacy for the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries.

LOUISVILLE — Sit-ins originated long before the civil rights movement. Protests among Africans go back nearly six centuries.

“In every community there has been Black resistance. It’s almost universal,” the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins said last week on “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast,” hosted by Simon Doong and the Rev. Lee Catoe. Hawkins directs the Office of Public Witness and the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations advocacy offices and wrote the book “Unbroken and Unbowed: A History of Black Protest in America,” published earlier this year by Westminster John Knox Press.

Click here to listen to the conversation Hawkins had with Catoe, editor of Unbound: An Interactive Journal of Christian Social Justice, and Doong, a mission specialist in the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program. Hawkins enters during the 28th minute.

Hawkins was asked a question from a listener about the traditional focus on the abolitionist and civil rights movements. “I imagine there are many more ways the Black community has both contributed to and led justice efforts in our country,” the listener wrote. “What are some examples? How does this affect our understanding of current struggles for racial justice and the Black Lives Matter movement?”

“That’s a great question from someone who’s been pondering this,” Hawkins said. “We equate sit-ins with the civil rights movement, but they actually started before and during the abolitionist movement.” Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass both participated. Black people also organized and joined read-ins, entering and then refusing to leave whites-only libraries. Even more famously, they swam at segregated pools.

“When you look at the Great Migration, that’s a direct example of Black protest in between the abolitionist movement and the civil rights movement,” Hawkins said. “It was amazing how people just basically said, ‘It’s time to go.’ It was a way of saying, ‘The oppression here in the South is so great that I am not going to stand for it anymore.’”

Doong asked: What role did faith communities play in these protests?

The Black church “has always played a role in social justice movements in this country,” Hawkins replied. People who were enslaved “developed a theology of liberation once they learned beyond what the slavemaster preachers were telling them.” In addition to the traditional “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ,” “they started to learn about the book of Exodus, a book of liberation,” Hawkins said. “They started learning about the prophets,” who spoke and wrote “prophetic words of justice. They began to develop a theology that said, ‘Jesus is a deliverer just as Moses was a deliverer.’”

Illiterate preachers who were enslaved would memorize chunks of the Bible “and take it back to their community and preach it,” Hawkins said. These preachers would end their sermons with words echoed more recently by the Rev. Jesse Jackson: “You are … somebody!”

“It doesn’t matter what the slaveholders say,” Hawkins said, repeating the message of the enslaved preachers. “No matter what these slavery-endorsing preachers say, you are a child of God beloved by God.”

When politicians want to rally the Black community, where do they go? “They don’t go to the barber shop,” Hawkins said. “They go to the Black church. They try to have an audience with the congregation because they know the political agenda and the spiritual agenda of the Black church go hand in hand.” That push has wavered in recent years, and Hawkins cautioned about faith leaders endorsing individual candidates in church.

Among white churches, Hawkins singled out the Quakers who were “instrumental in justice movements, especially when you look at the abolitionist movement. They were engaged. They participated in the Underground Railroad. … There was a strong sense of allegiance with the Black community in the Quaker community. That’s where we first started calling each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister.’ We got that from the Quaker community. That’s a longstanding title they have.”

With Presbyterians, Hawkins recommends looking more at individuals than the denomination as a whole. “I think the denomination itself played it safe,” Hawkins said. The Rev. Dr. Gayraud Wilmore estimates that in 1850, Presbyterians living in the South held 70,000 enslaved people, Hawkins noted. “The denomination did not want to upset Southerners because many were quite wealthy,” Hawkins said. The northern and southern churches split in 1861 because of slavery; they would not reunite until 1983.

But “quite a few” presbyteries and pastors were “very engaged in the movement for justice,” according to Hawkins. The Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy bears the name of Elijah Lovejoy, who was shot and killed in 1837 defending the site of his anti-slavery newspaper, the St. Louis Observer. “When you read history books [published] during the height of the abolitionist period, 1830-65, many of the leaders in the Black community were either trained by the Presbyterian church or by Presbyterian ministers,” Hawkins said. The Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, the great orator and abolitionist, was a Presbyterian, as was the Rev. Samuel E. Cornish, the co-editor of Freedom’s Journal, the first Black-owned and operated newspaper in the country.

“These names keep popping up because of the fact that even though the denomination was a segregated denomination and did not come out against slavery, there were inroads being made in certain regions, especially in the North,” Hawkins said. “The Methodists and the Baptists are generally seen as being more progressive” on the issue of slavery, he said. The Jewish community “was very engaged” in the civil rights movement, Hawkins noted.

For 20 years, Hawkins pastored a church in Durham, North Carolina, that held “Souls to the Polls” events during each election season. “We would load up the van and drive people to the polls to vote,” he said, always being careful not to “be partisan and tell them who to vote for. But you can provide voter education and transportation. This goes hand in hand with the ethos of the Black church.”

As he speaks to PC(USA) churches and mid councils, Hawkins said he’s careful to “tailor my talks depending on who I’m talking to. If I’m talking to a white congregation, usually someone will say, ‘You’re bringing politics into the church.’ … You would hardly ever hear that in a congregation of color, especially an African American congregation.”

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” with the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong drops each Thursday.

“We can’t have a present that’s empowered unless we’re aware of our past,” Hawkins said. “The Church has got to find ways it can repair some of the damage. I’m encouraged nationwide by some of the moves that have been made,” citing specifically reparations work done by Princeton Theological Seminary, Union Presbyterian Seminary and other institutions. “They are starting to say, ‘Part of our existence is owed to the institution of slavery, and we want to find ways to give back.’ We can’t undo it but we can acknowledge it. We can talk about it and we can also find ways we can make a positive difference.”

New episodes of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” drop every Thursday. Find them here.

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