Lenten Lessons from the Civil Rights Movement

By: M. Shawn Copeland, Boston College

The Christian liturgical calendar reenacts in real time key events in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God, as these are recorded in the four Gospels. The forty days of Lent recall the forty days Jesus spent in the Judaean desert in prayer and fasting, discernment and preparation for his ministry—preaching the coming reign of God, healing women and men afflicted in body and crippled in spirit, and welcoming in love and compassion those made poor and excluded from their community’s care.

For too many of us, Lent correlates with relinquishment or giving something up, for example, giving up favorite activities (the cinema or Hulu) or certain foods or drink; yet, mere relinquishment never can exhaust what Lent signifies. This liturgical season opens us to a sustained period of intense reflection on the state of our Baptismal commitment to follow and to profess Jesus as Lord: we re-attune ourselves to Scripture, engage in self-reflection and personal discipline.

At the same time, the frequent February coincidence of Black History Month and Lent (and although just that —coincidence) may provide an opportunity to reconsider what it means to live together as a Christian community within a secular nation that too easily too often forgets its way, what it means to heal those among us crippled in spirit, what it means to welcome ‘others’ in love and compassion. The black and white, women and men who risked their bodies, their very lives, in striving to bring about a resurrection justice for our nation demonstrate not only that the modern Civil Rights Movement was a movement of bodily discipline and disciplined bodies, but also that that movement struggled to embody what it might mean to live Christian life in public for the common good.

Rosa Parks, Mugshot upon her arrest, December 1, 1955. Bridgeman Art Gallery, Private Collection.
Rosa Parks. Mugshot upon her arrest, December 1, 1955, Montgomery.  Bridgeman Art Gallery, Private Collection.

Consider that Rosa Parks purposively and intentionally put her body, her very self, in a situation of exclusion and threat. She risked this action in protest of human law made to separate and segregate bodies one from another on the basis of skin pigmentation. Mrs. Parks claimed an empty seat—one meant for white bodies; she refused to give up that seat, refused to stand. By situating her body in defiance of human law, Rosa Parks called attention to the blasphemy leveled relentlessly against God’s image manifest in the bodies of black children, women, and men.

Her subsequent arrest struck a chord among an already organized and prepared community, waiting for just the right opportunity to challenge immoral law. Mrs. Parks’ action contributed directly to the legendary Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. Under the leadership of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for 381 days beginning in early December 1955 through December 1956, in heat and cold, sun and rain, despite harassment by police, intimidation by the Ku Klux Klan, jeopardized employment, firings, threats, hastily contrived ordinances to prohibit organized taxi transportation of boycotters, even bombings of homes and churches, black people of all ages in Montgomery refused to ride buses. Disciplined in mind and spirit and body, they walked. On November 13, 1956, the U. S. Supreme Court declared Alabama’s state and local laws enforcing segregation on buses to be unconstitutional. The ruling was delivered in Montgomery on December 20. Fifty thousand black people had maintained solidarity and brought down segregation in a key city of the Old Confederacy.

Recall that a mere 55 years ago, college students affirmed the universality of human dignity with their bodies. Dozens of Freedom Riders, black and white, women and men, took to the nation’s highways, riding buses into the deep South in order to expose the persistence of segregation in interstate travel and travel facilities. Black Freedom Riders sat in sections of the bus ordinarily reserved for whites, white Freedom Riders sat in sections ordinarily reserved for blacks, and sometimes Freedom Riders sat together in mixed racial groups. They endured vicious mob threats, brutal mob beatings, arrest, and imprisonment. In at least two instances, buses in which Freedom Riders rode were firebombed and law enforcement officials reportedly were slow in responding to their assistance.

Mothers’ Day, May 14, 1961, as Greyhound bus carrying Freedom Riders and other passengers burns after being fire-bombed by white mob that attacked the bus and some riders near Anniston, Alabama.
On May 14, 1961 a Greyhound Bus carrying Freedom Riders and other passengers burns after being fire-bombed by a white mob that attacked the bus near Anniston, Alabama.

The spiritual and bodily courage, personal and collective commitment of the Freedom Riders inspired thousands of other U. S. citizens to direct protest against the unjust laws of racial segregation. And their action compelled the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to enforce rulings passed five years earlier, but ignored by those Southern states, counties, and municipalities that upheld Jim Crow segregation. Six months after the Freedom Rides, the ICC enforced the law—passengers on interstate buses and trains could now chose their seats and sit wherever they pleased without interference; ‘white’ and ‘colored’ signs were removed from bus and train terminals, thereby, eliminating racially segregated drinking fountains, toilets, waiting rooms, and lunch counters.

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According to Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesus’ Sermon on the Mountain functioned as the crucial inspiration for black people’s “dignified social action. It was Jesus of Nazareth that stirred the Negroes to protest with the creative weapon of love.”[1]  However, some historians argue that the Reverend Glenn Smiley, a white minister, and black pacifist Bayard Rustin, then executive secretary of the War Resisters’ League (a founder along with James Farmer of the Committee, later Congress, of Racial Equality or CORE) sought to convince King to interpret the Montgomery protest “in light of the principles and techniques of [Gandhi’s] nonviolent resistance.”[2]  But for King, Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance was, in fact, “nothing more and nothing less than Christianity in action.”[3]

King understood segregation as a double contradiction of the country’s democratic principles and its religious heritage; segregation betrayed the country’s best and most noble ideals of liberty and justice. However, he maintained that the religious contradiction of segregation was the worst. The church had a moral obligation to condemn segregation and to work for its elimination. “If we are to remain true to the gospel of Jesus Christ,” King argued, “we cannot rest until segregation and discrimination are banished from every area of American life.”[4]

Volunteers in the Birmingham Movement signed a Commitment Card that read in part:

I hereby pledge myself—my person and body—to the nonviolent movement. Therefore I will keep the following Ten Commandments: 1. MEDITATE daily on the teachings and life of Jesus. 2. REMEMBER always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation—not victory. 3. WALK and TALK in the manner of love, for God is love. 4. PRAY daily to be used by God in order that all men [sic] might be free. 5. SACRIFICE personal wishes in order that all men [sic] might be free. 6. OBSERVE with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy. 7. SEEK to perform regular service for others and for the world. 8. REFRAIN from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart. 9. STRIVE to be in good spiritual and bodily health. 10. FOLLOW the directions of the movement and of the captain on a demonstration.[5]

The person taking this pledge obliges her or his very person and body to the movement’s cause in imitation of Jesus, who taught a ‘way’ to live. The verbal imperatives require embodied spiritual practices: meditation, remembrance, loving self-comportment, prayer, sacrifice, observance, seeking, refraining, striving, and cooperation. And these embodied practices lay the foundation for beloved community.

Realization of beloved community is rooted in praxis of redemptive love. Thus, this pledge implies not only high and noble purpose, but a distinctive Christian engagement in service of the common good. And that engagement takes form as agape. Thus, King’s programme of nonviolent protest projected a form of Christian social praxis or agapic praxis in which nonviolent resisters, black and white, literally shouldered the ignominious cross of segregation and discrimination. These men and women met physical and psychological, even spiritual, suffering with Christian love or agape (cf. Matthew 5: 1-12). This agapic praxis could be sustained only through prayer, self-discipline, and remembrance of the Body of Christ broken for the world. This is another expression of solidarity in the here-and-now anticipating the eschatological healing and building up of the broken body of God’s people.

A praxis of redemptive love interrupts human desires for mastery and control; its aim is the inculcation of new habits and dispositions, nothing less than the complete transformation of the human person. A praxis of redemptive love—other-regarding, neighbor-loving, selfless to the point of self-sacrifice, fearless and loving in the face of persecution, open, and hopeful—hungers and thirsts for the lived and embodied justice of beloved community in which we belong to God and are for one another.

In our aching world, in our aching nation, the lessons of Civil Rights activists and Freedom Riders continue to inspire us to pledge our persons and bodies to service of the common good, to take up the struggle for justice rather than give something up, to fast in order to grow hungry and thirsty for justice, and to live as Jesus lived in hope and expectation of the reign of God.


M. Shawn Copeland is Professor of Systematic Theology at Boston College. She is a former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA), and a former Convener of the Black Catholic Theological Symposium (BCTS), an interdisciplinary learned association of Black Catholic scholars.  Dr. Copeland has published over 100 essays and several books, including Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race and Being (2010) and  The Subversive Power of Love: The Vision of Henriette Delille (2009).


[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., “An Experiment in Love,” 16, in Joseph Melven Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Harper & Row, 1986).
[2] Washington, “Introduction,” to King, “Walk for Freedom,” 82, in A Testament of Hope, 82.
[3] King, “Walk for Freedom,” 82, in A Testament of Hope, 86.
[4] Ibid., 89.
[5] Cited in John J. Ansbro, Martin Luther King, Jr., The Making of A Mind (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1984), vi.