Black History Month gives churches opportunity to celebrate both historical memory and Christianity’s role in social reformation in the United States, said an Alabama history professor.
“Religious groups ought to participate in and support historical memory, particularly when it revolves around issues of church and ethics,” said Wayne Flynt, professor of history at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala. “That’s basically what the civil rights movement was about in America.”
Historical memory can be “oftentimes painful,” and reaction from whites to the month-long celebration varies, said Flynt.
“A fair number of southern whites resent the attention paid to Black History Month,” he said. “Others accept [the attention] as quite educational and useful.”
Celebration of black history and the church’s role in civil rights is particularly educational for younger generations, said Flynt.
“It helps younger people understand what the issues were,” he said. “They weren’t alive then and this reminder helps educate them.”
Reminders about the civil rights struggle in the U.S. can cause feelings of resentment or shame from some whites. Yet blacks don’t want their struggles to be forgotten, he said.
“A lot of whites really want to get beyond the whole question of race,” he said. “They view it as divisive…as something they’re not proud of and as a stain on history. Very few blacks want to forget it.”
Flynt suggests highlighting Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth as important African-American leaders in Baptist history during the civil rights movement.
“It seems to me the church ought to be delighted to celebrate the month,” said Flynt, “because it emphasizes the role of Christianity in reform movements in America.”
Sarah Griffith is BCE’s communications director.