Blacks say atheists were unseen civil rights heroes

February 23, 2012

Think of the civil rights movement and chances are the image that
comes to mind is of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. leading the 1963
March on Washington.

But few people think of A. Philip Randolph, a
labor organizer who originated the idea of the march and was at King's
side as he made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

Why is King, a
Christian, remembered by so many and Randolph, an atheist, by so few?
It's a question many African-American nontheists—atheists, humanists and
skeptics—were asking this last Black History Month. Some scholars and
activists call for a reexamination of the contributions of nontheists of
color to the civil rights movement and beyond.

"So often you hear
about religious people involved in the civil rights movement, as well
you should, but there were also humanists," said Norm R. Allen Jr. of
the Institute for Science and Human Values, a humanist organization
based in Tampa, Florida. "No one is discussing how their beliefs
impacted their activism or intellectualism. People forget we are a
diverse community. We are not monolithic."

Allen has promoted
recognition for African-American nonbelievers since he founded the group
African Americans for Humanism in 1989. This year more than 15 local
AAH chapters highlighted Randolph and about a dozen others as part of
their observance of a Day of Solidarity for Black Nonbelievers on the
last Sunday in February.

The hope, Allen said, is that
highlighting the contributions of African-American humanists—and
humanists in general—both in the civil rights movement and beyond will
encourage acceptance of nonbelievers, a group that polls consistently
rank as the least liked in the U.S.

"So often people look at
atheists as if they have horns on their heads," Allen said. "In order to
correct that, it would be important to correct the historical record
and show that African-American humanists have been involved in numerous
instances in the civil rights movement and before."

A billboard in
Los Angeles pairs Sikivu Hutchinson, a humanist activist based in Los
Angeles, with Zora Neale Hurston, a folklorist of African-American
culture who wrote of being an unbeliever in her childhood. Hutchinson,
author of the forthcoming Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels, links blacks' religiosity with social ills such as poverty, joblessness and inequality.

"To
become politically visible as a constituency, it is critical for black
nonbelievers to say we have this parallel position within the civil
rights struggle," she said.

A strain of unbelief runs across
African-American history, said Anthony Pinn, a Rice University professor
and author of a book about African-American humanists. He points to
figures like Hubert Henry Harrison, an early 20th-century activist who
equated religion with slavery, and W. E. B. Du Bois, a cofounder of the
NAACP, who was often critical of black churches.

"Lorraine
Hansberry, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes—they were all critical of
belief in God," Pinn said. "They provided a foundation for nontheistic
participation in social struggle." But they are often ignored in the
narrative of American history, sacrificed to the idea that the civil
rights movement was the accomplishment of religious—mainly
Christian—people.

Add in that black nonbelievers are a double
minority—polls show African-Americans are among the most religious U.S.
group—and it becomes even more difficult to discuss the atheism of
heroes of black history. "This is a country that loves the rhetoric of
the belief in God," Pinn said.

Juan Floyd-Thomas, a religious
historian and professor at Vanderbilt University and author of a book on
the origins of black humanism, agrees with Pinn; he terms the
traditional view of the civil rights movement as an inevitable extension
of American Christianity "a mythology."

Wright's and Randolph's
critiques of organized religion, Floyd-Thomas said, "would not be too
far out of step with the New Atheists"—best-selling atheist authors like
Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. But he laments that most
African Americans and even many nontheists are unaware of this history.

"One
of the things that can be gained from shining a bright light on the
contributions of nontheists to the broad sweep of the civil rights
movement would have to be integrity," he said. "These people had a moral
core, and that's something that is sorely needed, whether you are a
theist or a nontheist."  —RNS