The University of Virginia’s Project on Lived Theology has launched a new online resource, The Civil Rights Movement as Theological Drama, that brings together hundreds of firsthand accounts of how religious convictions played a multifaceted role in the Civil Rights Movement.
“During that extraordinary period in American history, white conservatives, civil rights activists, black militants, black moderates and Klansmen all staked their particular claims for racial justice and social order on the premise that God was on their side,” said Charles Marsh, director of the Project on Lived Theology and professor of religious studies in the College of Arts & Sciences.
The new digital archive includes full-length interviews, newspaper articles, field reports, letters, court filings and other primary sources from the Civil Rights Movement – much of which is drawn from the Project on Lived Theology’s paper archive and Marsh’s decades of research – and organizes everything by actors, scenes, themes and keywords, to show how people lived out their theological beliefs in the world, said Kelly West Figueroa-Ray, manager of the new resource and a doctoral student in religious studies.
“Using themes and scenes and ‘In Their Own Words’ excerpts, the archive puts firsthand reflections from people of diverse positions – from both pro- and anti-civil rights activists to fence-sitting moderates – in conversation with each other, and demonstrates the struggles of peacemaking, community-building and lived theology during a pivotal moment in history,” she said.
“With a few clicks you can get a glimpse into vastly different views of reality and faith from people who lived or worked in close proximity in the South between 1955 and 1973.”
For instance, under the theme “Faith Influencing Action: Testimonials and Theological Perspectives,” the site includes an excerpt from an interview Marsh conducted with Sam Bowers, Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, in which Bowers reflects on his role: “I think I came here as a priest. … The priest is more concerned with heresy than with sin; sins can be forgiven; heresy must be eliminated.”
From the other side of the conflict, civil rights activist John Perkins states, “And I said to my wife, I said, ‘Honey, if we gonna make it different in Menden Hall ... we’re gonna have to stay in town long enough that we can ... help them get a love for God, a love for themselves and a love for the community.’”
These two men with directly opposing views and goals both claimed to be evangelical Christians following a call from God.
“Reading narratives like these, side-by-side, exposes the complexity and consequences of lived theology as it was enacted during the Civil Rights Movement,” Marsh said. “The archive provides rich resources to explore during this Black History Month.”
With the help of fellowship funding from the Sciences, Humanities and Arts Network of Technological Initiatives, Figueroa-Ray worked with Rafael Alvarado, associate director of SHANTI, and Mark Edwards of Optipop, a local design firm, to construct the website.