Religion and the Struggle for Racial Inclusion in Twentieth-Century America

AHA Session 252
Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Columbia Hall 10 (Washington Hilton)
David A. Hollinger, University of California, Berkeley
Kevin M. Schultz, University of Illinois at Chicago and David A. Hollinger, University of California, Berkeley

Session Abstract

Religion and the Struggle for Racial Inclusion in Twentieth Century America

            This panel investigates how religious organizations, including the religious press and religiously motivated educational groups, popularized social scientific antiracist thought, brought pluralist ideas to the white public, and negotiated the contradictions that emerged from their efforts against racial injustice in the twentieth century. Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant leaders acquired and mobilized antiracist ideas and tactics, often selectively and at times without challenging segregation, as they engaged their constituencies for improved race relations. This panel adds to our understanding of the successes and failures of the fight for racial inclusiveness and examines the overlooked but critical role of religious inter-racialism in the years before the Civil Rights movement. Each panelist adds to our understanding of the efforts to change the attitudes and behavior of the white public by stressing the religious roots of antiracist activism.

            Matthew Hedstrom emphasizes contact with non-white religious leaders as a dynamic of antiracism. His paper focuses on Toyohiko Kagawa, who was often billed as the “the Japanese Gandhi” and who addressed some 750,000 people in a 1936 American speaking tour and countless others through the Protestant press. The mass acclaim of Kagawa marked the emergence of modern social scientific sensibilities into the mainstream of American liberal Protestant life. While intellectuals embraced the new anthropological and philosophical understandings of race in the 1920s and 1930s, leaders in the churches worked to disentangle missionary work from Western cultural and racial imperialism. This paper uses Kagawa to explore the rapidly changing racial sensibilities of American liberal Protestants in the interwar and immediate postwar years.

            Gene Zubovich shows that religious thinking about global affairs contributed to antiracist activism in the United States. His paper investigates the anti-racist program developed by the Federal Council of Churches’ (FCC) that took advantage of churchgoers’ enthusiasm for the United Nations during the 1940s and 1950s. The FCC, a Protestant umbrella group representing half of the voting age population of the United States, mobilized the latest social-scientific techniques and worked with the Truman administration and the NAACP to articulate and publicize the liberal political agenda on segregation. Zubovich argues that while the churches did not integrate during this era, the political activism of the FCC paved the way for later involvement of white Protestants in the Civil Rights movement.

            Finally, Leah Gordon emphasizes that some tactics used to combat racial prejudice were first developed to combat religious intolerance. Her paper chronicles the National Council of Christians and Jews’ (NCCJ) antiracist work between the 1940s and the 1960s and explores how religiously motivated anti-prejudice workers used education as an alternative to more effective challenges to racial injustice. The NCCJ’s understanding of prejudice emphasized the individual and led leaders to believe the organization was uniquely positioned to engage the Southern “moderate.”  Gordon highlights challenges associated with generalizing intergroup relations, the programmatic implications of the American tendency to explain social problems by pointing to individual actors, and the ways educational intervention justified disengagement from controversial racial politics.

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