Faith in Black Power

Religion, Race, and Resistance in Cairo, Illinois

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Kerry Pimblott
Civil Rights and Struggle
  • Lexington, KY: 
    University Press of Kentucky
    , January
     2017.
     334 pages.
     $45.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780813168821.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

A wealth of scholarship has explored the transformative impact of black power on black Christianity. What has received considerably less attention, is the influence of black Christianity on black power era activism. In Faith in Black Power: Religion, Race, and Resistance in Cairo, Illinois, author Kerry Pimblott attempts to address this lacuna. In doing so, Pimblott calls for a fresh look at the dynamic relationship between the black church, black theology, and the black power movement. 

Faith in Black Power investigates the rich history of Cairo, Illinois, and its longstanding quest for racial justice. Meticulously researched, Pimblott draws from a wealth of primary sources, including interviews, articles, government reports, promotional materials used by community organizations, and so forth, to present an on-the-ground view of the fight against white supremacy and reveal its meaning to the activists and everyday people of this northern borderland community. 

Pimblott is particularly concerned with the black church’s central yet ever-changing role throughout the history of Cairo’s black freedom struggle. Faith in Black Power traces this development chronologically. The author argues that this enduring correlation is based on three key determining factors: 1) the social and political conditions unique to that geographic region, 2) the relative uniformity of the local black religious traditions, and 3) the ability of activists to effectively recruit within church congregations.

The first chapter analyzes black life and community formation in Cairo from the early 1800s through World War II. It looks at the black church during the height of its local influence in the late 19th century and also chronicles the challenges posed by economic depressions, white racism, and world wars. 

Chapter 2 examines Cairo during the civil rights movement. Specifically, it focuses on successful desegregation campaigns waged with the help of national civil rights organizations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Cairo was considered a “legal laboratory” to pilot some of the strategies that would ultimately be used more widely, particularly in the Deep South. Pimblott explains that the movement was fueled by an ideology which combined Christian theology, racial reconciliation, and Gandhian nonviolence. This helped student organizers solicit support intergenerationally and across class. 

A number of iconic figures within the black freedom struggle are central players in the Cairo story. People such as Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Thurgood Marshall, and John Lewis, for example, should be familiar to most readers. Additionally, Faith in Black Power does a wonderful job of bringing to the fore many of the lesser-known, more local actors also key to this history. Schoolteacher Hattie Kendrick, state legislator Corneal Davis, auto mechanic Henry Dyson, unemployed laborer John Brantley, Reverend Blaine Ramsey Jr., and Clydia Koen, are just some of the ordinary people whose work and sacrifice forwarded the cause of racial justice in Cairo during the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. 

But at the center of Faith in Black Power is the story of the United Front organization and its leader, Charles Koen. As the civil rights movement transitioned to the black power era, it brought with it challenging ideological questions. Many black activists began to shift from the goal of liberal integration, doubt the strategy of nonviolence, and question the value of the Christian church. Instead, racial collectivity and black self-determination by any means necessary were prioritized. Pimblott shows how Koen and the United Front retained and utilized black Christian traditions towards crafting a united black front. Pimblott writes: “By building on the shared religious culture of black Cairoites as well as emergent theological trends, United Front leaders constructed a grassroots black power theology and movement culture capable of bridging intraracial divisions and sustaining the movement over the long haul” (107).

The remaining chapters of Pimblott’s text explore the rise of Cairo’s United Front, detail its philosophical underpinnings, and chart its successes—including its ability to secure support from local, state, and national church organizations and subsequently redistribute these resources to local black power efforts. Unfortunately, these gains were met with conservative backlash and state repression. Pimblott’s monograph also chronicles the United Front’s ultimate decline.

Faith in Black Power is a stunning achievement. Masterly crafted and beautifully written, it adds new consideration to discourse surrounding the relationship between African-American Christianity and the black power movement. The text will appeal to a broad range of scholars working in areas such as American religious history, African-American studies, sociology of religion, urban history, social movement theory, black theology, Christian social ethics, the black radical tradition, and so forth. 

2018 witnessed the deaths of three theological giants of the African-American Christian experience. Many have heard of James H. Cone and Katie G. Cannon. Now, thanks to Pimblott’s Faith in Black Power, many more will know the story of Charles Koen, the United Front, and the historical struggle for racial justice in Cairo, Illinois. 

Highly recommended!

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nkosi Du Bois Anderson is a doctoral student in Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kerry L. Pimblott is lecturer in American history at the University of Manchester.

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