Book focuses on religious women in civil rights era
1/29/2003 News media contact: Linda Bloom · (646) 369-3759 · New York
NOTE: A photograph is available with this report.
A UMNS Feature By Linda Bloom*
and Testifying: Black Women, Religion, and Civil Rights, by the Rev.
Rosetta Ross, was published in January by Fortress Press. A UMNS photo
courtesy of Fortress Press. Photo number 03-31, Accompanies UMNS #037,
No Long Caption Available for this Story
When the Rev. Rosetta Ross was a girl growing up in
South Carolina, a deeply religious woman named Victoria Way DeLee was
changing the lives of African Americans in her state.
Christian upbringing fueled her social action work, which ranged from
leading protests and boycotts to organizing voter registration campaigns
and school desegregation efforts. "I knew her and knew about her and
grew up going to those mass meetings," Ross says, adding that her
parents, Thomas and Bertha Ross, participated in civil rights activities
Ross, who later became an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, remembered DeLee and used her as an example when writing her dissertation about people living out their faith.
work on DeLee also heightened her curiosity about other women
prominently involved in civil rights issues. Ross, now the McVay
Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at United Theological Seminary
of the Twin Cities in Minnesota, eventually expanded that interest into a
book exploring how the religious consciousness of African-American
women related to their work as civil rights activists.
The result, Witnessing and Testifying: Black Women, Religion, and Civil Rights, was published in January by Fortress Press.
she considers the seven women that she chose to highlight to be "pretty
central" to the civil rights movement, Ross notes that the extent of
their influence has not received as much attention as the influence of
the prominent men in the movement, either then or now.
elements of the lives of all seven women - DeLee among them - include
being strongly influenced by an elder or elders and by traditions of
faith in early life; having deep connections to their communities
through community work motivated by religious traditions; and seeking,
in general, to improve society.
In the preface to her book, Ross
explains that the civil rights activism of these and other
African-American women "is their female enactment of black religious
values that reflected an internal concern for the black community's
survival and flourishing and a related external concern to address
society's formal and conventional sources of inequality."
One of the earliest examples is Sojourner Truth, the former slave turned abolitionist and women's rights advocate.
most important in Truth's moral vision is affirmation of her own human
identity," Ross writes. "She expected divine intervention in behalf of
her own life and her children's lives. Her religious perspective
sustained her emotionally and guided her social activism. In addition,
her use of Scripture to support her arguments and her expectation of
divine protection as she lectured about the rights of all women and
black persons reflects a perspective that divine intent included full
life for all human beings."
In the early 20th century, Nannie
Helen Burroughs helped found and led the National Baptist Convention's
Women's Convention, which supported education, the resettlement of black
people moving to cities, and social and moral reform. She also helped
connect middle-class women with female industrial workers, including
housekeepers and laborers, and supported the unionizing of domestic
In those earlier times, according to Ross, religion
affirmed the humanity of black people even as the outside world did not.
"The church and religious perspectives were so important to affirming
people who were told in society, 'You're not even human,'" she explains.
being religious also meant being socially responsible, dealing with
structures that held blacks down and then "attending to society so that
every person can life a full life," she adds.
For Ella Josephine
Baker, who helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and
the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, that message was carried
by her mother and grandfather, who were able to "clearly communicate to
her through the work that they were doing that what you did with your
life is make the world a better place," Ross says.
Both Baker and
Septima Poinsette Clark were college-educated professionals born around
the turn of the last century who "not only carried on the work of
improving African Americans' immediate material conditions but also saw
the bigger picture and more possibilities. They helped inaugurate and
shape the civil rights era," she writes. Clark created the Citizen
Education Program, a method of teaching literacy for voter registration
that was replicated across the South.
Women like DeLee and Fannie
Lou Hamer, who both grew up in poverty and had limited formal
education, had to deal with survival issues first for their own families
before expanding into the needs of society. But once they became
activists, their work was acknowledged, even by men. "I don't think
their leadership in the community was ever debated or challenged," Ross
She believes it would be difficult for someone with Fannie
Lou Hamer's background to succeed today. "There was a sense, in the
civil rights era, a sense of possibility that I think we're very far
removed from right now," she explains. That sense included "the
possibility that Fannie Lou Hamer could be elected to Congress or that
Fannie Lou Hamer could be a delegate to the Democratic National
Convention." Hamer ran for Congress in Mississippi in 1964 and was a
delegate to the 1968 and 1972 conventions.
Christian women were
not the only ones with influence on the civil rights movement. In her
book, Ross also profiles Clara Muhammad, who comes from the same
generation as Baker and Clark but had less education and grew up in
poverty. Muhammad and her husband, Elijah, founded the Nation of Islam.
That Muslim organization's emphasis on black self-esteem and racial
pride was the genesis of the black power movement that became a part of
the civil rights movement. "Her work was directly related to that," Ross
Ross hopes the stories of some later movement workers -
Diane Nash and Ruby Doris Smith Robinson - will be inspiring to younger
readers of her book. Both became active in the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee while attending college in the late 1950s and
early 1960s and served jail sentences for participating in sit-ins and
other protests. Robinson eventually became the committee's
highest-ranking and most authoritative woman.
people often are not given credit for what they do, the Student
Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was an example of a group that "helped
shake up the society," Ross says.
Witnessing and Testifying has a
list price of $23 and can be ordered online at www.fortresspress.com or
by calling toll free (800) 328-4648.
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*Bloom is United Methodist News Service's New York news director.