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Resisting Jim Crow Colonialism: Black Christianity and the International Roots of the Civil Rights Movement

Part of the Palgrave Studies in the History of Social Movements book series (PSHSM)


This chapter identifies a network of black Christian activists and intellectuals who looked abroad, even to other religious traditions, for ideas and practices that could transform American democracy. Their connections with independence and anticolonial leaders throughout Asia and Africa demonstrate how the U.S. civil rights movement was part of a global wave of anticolonial movements. The essay examines three episodes of this larger history: Howard Thurman’s visit to South Asia in 1935–1936; Pauli Murray’s use of satyagraha to protest her arrest on a bus in 1940; and Bayard Rustin’s engagement with nonviolence and anticolonialism in West Africa in the early 1950s. Their intellectual and activist labors challenged American democracy and American Christianity to embody the racial egalitarianism they believed each promised.


  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Black Christianity
  • Satyagraha
  • American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)
  • Historically Black Colleges And Universities (HBCUs)

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  1. 1.

    Douglas Rossinow, Visions of Progress: The Left-Liberal Tradition in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 4.

  2. 2.

    Referring to the “decade spanned by the 1954 Supreme Court decision on school desegregation and the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” Bayard Rustin wrote that “the term ‘classical’ appears especially apt for this phase of the civil rights movement” in Bayard Rustin, “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement,” Commentary (February 1964), 25.

  3. 3.

    Nikhil Pal Singh, Black is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 64.

  4. 4.

    Singh, Black is a Country, 53.

  5. 5.

    Frederick D. Opie, “Africans in the Caribbean and Latin America: The Post-Emancipation Diaspora,” in A Companion to African American History, ed. Alton Hornsby, Jr. (New York: Blackwell, 2005), 78–9.

  6. 6.

    Johnson quoted in Sudarshan Kapur, Raising up a Prophet: The African-American Encounter with Gandhi (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 86.

  7. 7.

    Gerald Horne, The End of Empires: African Americans and India (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008), 97; Horne characterizes Thurman in this way, but it certainly applies to all four men.

  8. 8.

    Dennis Dickerson, “African American Religious Intellectuals and the Theological Foundations of the Civil Rights Movement,” Church History 74, no. 2 (June 2005), 219.

  9. 9.

    Dickerson, “African American Religious Intellectuals and the Theological Foundations of the Civil Rights Movement,” 219. See also, Zachery Williams, “Prophets of Black Progress: Benjamin E. Mays and Howard W. Thurman, Pioneering Black Religious Intellectuals,” Journal of African American Men 5 (Spring 2001), 28.

  10. 10.

    Randal Jelks, Benjamin Elijah Mays: Schoolmaster of the Movement A Biography (University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 112.

  11. 11.

    Jeannine DeLombard, “Sisters, Servants, or Saviors? National Baptist Women Missionaries in Liberia in the 1920s,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 23, no. 2 (1991), 323–347; and Walter L. Williams, Black Americans and the Evangelization of Africa, 1877–1900 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982).

  12. 12.

    Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1993), 1.

  13. 13.

    Arvind Mandair, “The Repetition of Past Imperialisms: Hegel, Historical Difference, and the Theorization of Indic Religions,” in Difference in Philosophy of Religion, ed. Philip Goodchild (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003), 293.

  14. 14.

    The black Christian intellectuals discussed in this chapter approached Indian religions in a way not typical for Western and/or Christian scholars. For example, Mandair feels that “few if any social scientists working in the history of religion would ever try to make concepts of these traditions into resources for contemporary critical theory” in “The Repetition of Past Imperialisms: Hegel, Historical Difference, and the Theorization of Indic Religions,” 278.

  15. 15.

    A thorough account of the discussion is Paul Knitter’s Introducing Theologies of Religions (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002).

  16. 16.

    Curtis J. Evans, The Burden of Black Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 206.

  17. 17.

    Howard Thurman , With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1979), 132. Thurman would have encountered similar questions about Islam in the United States. There was, of course, a diverse and longstanding community of black American Muslims. Richard Brent Turner has documented how “African Muslim slaves preserved their Islamic identities by refusing to internalize the Christian racist significations that justified the system of exploitation” in Islam in the African-American Experience (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), 24. In the 1860s and 1870s, Edward Wilmot Blyden believed that “Islam might be a preferable religion for African Americans” and “a focal point for an internationalist perspective” (52). In the wake of the failure of Reconstruction, Turner asserts that “black bitterness toward racism in Christianity was another important element in the creation of the new American Islam at the turn of the century” (59).

  18. 18.

    Howard Thurman , Jesus and the Disinherited, with a forward by Vincent Harding (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), 15.

  19. 19.

    Ibid., 34.

  20. 20.

    Ibid., 101.

  21. 21.

    Ibid., 70.

  22. 22.

    August Meier and Elliot Rudwick, “The Origins of Nonviolent Direct Action in Afro-American Protest: A Note on Historical Discontinuities,” in Along the Color Line: Explorations in the Black Experience, eds. August Meier and Elliot Rudwick (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976), 308–44.

  23. 23.

    Dennis Dickerson, “Rooted in India: William Stuart Nelson and the Religious Origins of the Civil Rights Movement,” James M. Lawson Jr. Chair Inaugural Lecture, Vanderbilt University, March 26, 2007, available at:

  24. 24.

    James L. Farmer, Jr., “The Race Logic of Pacifism,” Fellowship 8, no. 2 (February 1942), 25.

  25. 25.

    Howard Thurman , “My Dear Nevin,” December 15, 1939 in The Papers of Howard Washington Thurman: Volume II, 239–40.

  26. 26.

    Pauli Murray, Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), 142.

  27. 27.

    Ibid., 144.

  28. 28.

    Bayard Rustin, memo to A. J. Muste, John Swomley, Nevin Sayre, George Houser , and Al Hassler, November 9, 1950, ser. A, box 14, folder John Nevin Sayre–Rustin, Bayard, 1943–1953, 1964, Sayre Papers.

  29. 29.

    Bill Sutherland quoted in Bill Sutherland and Matt Meyer, Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle, and Liberation in Africa (Trenton: Africa World Press, Inc.), 10. See also George Houser , No One Can Stop the Rain: Glimpses of Africa’s Liberation Struggle (New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1989), 10.

  30. 30.

    Bayard Rustin, “Revolution Reaches Africa” (FOR-U.S. Papers, Swarthmore College Peace Collection), 6.

  31. 31.


  32. 32.


  33. 33.

    Ibid., 7.

  34. 34.

    For more on Rustin’s and the American Christian left engagement with anticolonial movements in Africa , see Jean Allman, “Nuclear Imperialism and the Pan-African Struggle for Peace and Freedom, Ghana, 1959–1962,” in Transnational Blackness: Navigating the Global Color Line, ed. Manning Marable and Vanessa Agard-Jones (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 333–354 and Leilah Danielson, American Gandhi: A.J. Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 261–262; 280–284; 291–295; 299.

  35. 35.

    David Chappell even calls Rustin a “former Quaker,” but Rustin was a member of Fifteenth Street monthly meeting in Manhattan for more than forty years, and I see no ebb in the Quakerliness of his writings throughout his life, see David L. Chappell, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and The Death of Jim Crow (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 55.

  36. 36.

    Rachel Muers, Testimony: Quakerism and Theological Ethics (London: SCM Press, 2015), 15.

  37. 37.

    Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence (a study of international conflict prepared by the American Friends Service Committee ; available at, 11.

  38. 38.

    A draft of the fourth section of Speak Truth to Power , with Rustin’s name on the first page, is filed in a collection of Rustin’s writings in the Fellowship of Reconciliation-U.S. Papers, Series B, Box 18 in a folder titled “1962: Corr. with Bayard Rustin.”

  39. 39.

    Speak Truth to Power, 4.

  40. 40.

    Ibid., 39.

  41. 41.

    Ibid., 37.

  42. 42.

    Forty-five years later, in September 2010, the AFSC board restored his name as one of the authors. A “historical note” following the text explains how, “following objections to the inclusion of Bayard Rustin’s name in the list of authors…, his name was deleted from the document.” Later the short note seems to quote Rustin , that it was “his ‘final and considered judgment’ to have his name removed for ‘largely personal’ reasons,” see “Historical Note about Bayard Rustin,” available at Curator of Swarthmore College’s Peace Collection Wendy Chmielewski has uncovered this was not the case; instead Rustin believed “his name should appear on the pamphlet and that over several weeks he negotiated with the AFSC to make this happen” in Wendy Chmielewski, “Speak Truth to Power: Religion, Race, and Sexuality, and Politics During the Cold War” an unpublished paper, 14.

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Azaransky, S. (2018). Resisting Jim Crow Colonialism: Black Christianity and the International Roots of the Civil Rights Movement. In: Danielson, L., Mollin, M., Rossinow, D. (eds) The Religious Left in Modern America. Palgrave Studies in the History of Social Movements. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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