This Worldwide Struggle

Religion and the International Roots of the Civil Rights Movement

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Sarah Azaransky
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , June
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Sarah  Azaransky has written an exceptional text tracing the personal, political, and intellectual exchange of ideas between liberation movements in India and West Africa and the religious leaders and activists who would provide the foundations for and lead the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. The importance of the Indian liberation and independence movement, in particular, to the work and thought of figures as diverse as Howard and Sue Bailey Thurman, Benjamin Mays, Bayard Rustin, Pauli Murray, and William Stuart and Blanche Nelson is carefully and clearly traced throughout the book. Those interested in the history of the Civil Rights Movement, Black theology in the 20th century, and global anticolonial networks in the first half of the 20th century will find this text indispensable.

In addition to providing an important history of these exchanges, Azaransky draws upon the example of the actors explored in the text as important to the history and methods of comparative religious studies and comparative theology. In my judgment, Azaransky is only moderately successful in this task because the distinctions between the religious, political, and strategic resources utilized by Gandhi, Tagore, Nkrumah, and others is unclear. Indeed, in many cases these distinctions are inappropriate – the political is religious and the religious is political and the strategic use of these resources shaped understandings of both. This lack of clarity, excepting uses of Gandhi’s understanding of Satyagraha, makes it difficult to determine exactly what “interreligious” learning is happening between Black American activists and international revolutionaries. Azaransky makes it very clear that people from different religious traditions interacted with and learned from each other; exactly what interreligious learning occurred between them is less clear. One partial exception is that Indian leaders regularly questioned Black American leaders about their Christianity, considering its use in sustaining their oppression. This line of questioning led these leaders to clarify their understanding of Jesus and the Christian faith. In particular, it helped spark Howard Thurman’s thinking on this subject, which would later take form in his classic book Jesus and the Disinherited. But this example demonstrates the difficulty of Azaransky’s task: it is not at all clear that “interreligious” learning happened in this mutual exchange. It is not that Hindu or Muslim theology or ritual pushed the constructive theological work of Thurman and others. Rather, it was learning about and being challenged by the shared experience of colonial oppression that sparked constructive political theology. This is not wholly a criticism of what Azaransky has achieved in this book, but it demonstrates the slipperiness of the category of religion when studying political and social ethics.

There are two great achievements of the book. The first is a clear documentation of the importance of international networks, often facilitated by predominately white Christian organizations such as the YMCA and YWCA, to the development of frameworks and strategies that would later inform and inspire the nonviolent direct action methods of the Civil Rights Movement. The second is the persuasive case made for the inclusion of Pauli Murray and Bayard Rustin as central figures in 20th-century Black theology in the United States. Pauli Murray was a woman who we today might describe as genderqueer. She explored medical answers to her lifelong struggle to live into her own understanding of her gender as a “male-identified person who loved women ” whose assigned gender at birth was female in a world in which transgender identity was not well-known or socially accepted (87). Indeed, Murray’s first public use of Satyagraha may have occurred when she was dressed as a man, and she and her partner and refused to give up their seats in the front of a bus. Murray coined the term “Jane Crow” to describe the unique oppressions experienced by Black women in the segregated American South, and later became the first Black woman ordained in the Episcopal Church. Her intellectual, spiritual, and material contributions to exposing and transforming the oppressions faced by Black women are incredible and their documentation in this volume and in Azaransky’s other work is immensely important.

Rustin was a gay Black member of the predominately white Christian denomination the Church of the Brethren. He counseled Martin Luther King Jr. and others on nonviolent direct action, and was a key figure in early pan-African and global anti-nuclear proliferation movements. Azaransky makes a compelling case that Rustin’s Brethren-informed theology of the light in each person and the interconnectedness and sanctity of all people were important resources for liberation movements in the US and abroad. This theology of human sanctity and interconnectedness may well have informed King’s vision of humanity as existing in an “inescapable network of mutuality” in which all people are connected in such a way as to make “an injustice anywhere a threat to justice everywhere.” Thus, alongside the many strategic contributions Rustin made to the movement, he may have provided one of the most important theological ideas that drove King and others to speak out against the Vietnam War and other global injustices.

It should be clear to anyone who reads this book that Murray and Rustin should be held in the same regard by theologians as King and Thurman, and that ethicists and activists should study their lives as much as they study the lives of Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, and Malcolm X. The contributions of these two world-changing thinkers, who experienced marginalization and oppression for their sexuality as well as their race, should be at the heart of any understanding of religiously-informed Black Liberation thought and action. Azaransky’s work in this book has made that case as clear as it has ever been made and it must be engaged by anyone working in this field going forward. 

Activists from Desmond Tutu to Angela Davis have linked the oppressions of African peoples on the continent and in the diaspora to the injustices experienced by Palestinians today. And the importance of intersectional analyses of race, gender, and sexuality are at the fore of the movement for Black Lives and other contemporary political battlegrounds. These contemporary questions of justice and liberation are not new. And there is much to learn from the thinkers and activists Azaransky has profiled in this book about how global networks and the particular experiences of people marginalized in multiple ways can provide the practical resources for transformational change in our contemporary world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James McCarty is Director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs and teaches courses in Religion and Ethics at Seattle University.

Date of Review: 
August 7, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sarah Azaransky is assistant professor of social ethics at Union Theological Seminary. She is the author of The Dream is Freedom: Pauli Murray and American Democratic Faith and the editor of Religion and Politics in America's Borderlands.


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