Albert J. Raboteau: What does it mean to be an American prophet?

In American Prophets, acclaimed religious scholar Albert Raboteau tells the remarkable stories of Abraham Joshua Heschel, A. J. Muste, Dorothy Day, and many other individuals who conveyed their vision to the broader public through writing, speaking, demonstrating, and organizing. In this interview for the PUP blog, Raboteau discusses his new book, social justice, and the good religion can do in politics.


What inspired you to write this book?

I was inspired to write this book by an undergraduate seminar course, “Religious Radicals” that I have taught at Princeton several times over the years. The students’ active engagement with the figures discussed in the course was refreshing and inspiring to me as a veteran of 1960s activism, inspired in part by meeting Dorothy Day when I was a freshman in college.

Your book is called American Prophets. How do you define prophets in your book?

I use Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s definition of the prophet as “one who feels the divine pathos for humanity like a fire in the bones and has to share it.”

These days when we think of the intersection of religion and politics, we think of the influence of the conservative right. But this hasn’t always been the case. How has religion’s intersection with American politics changed over time?

Our attention has been attenuated to focus on the “religious right,” but within the memory of many the civil rights movement, the anti-slavery movement, and the anti-war movement is still vivid. Moreover, large scale movements for radical social change are, in the nature of the case, rare.

What good can religion do in politics?

Two booksellers at our local bookstore asked me that question one morning several years ago. My immediate answer was “Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer.” They responded “yes, but they were exceptions.” I responded “true, they were exceptional but they also were exemplary.” My book is an attempt to turn the exceptional into the exemplary.

Your book tells the stories of characters from Abraham Joshua Heschel, to A. J. Muste, to Dorothy Day, Howard Thurman, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fannie Lou Hamer—all inspired individuals. Did you have a favorite story?

Yes. When Howard Thurman and Sue Bailey Thurman met Gandhi on a visit to India, he asked them to sing him an American Negro Spiritual. They obliged by singing “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord.” As they sang, Gandhi and his assistants prayed and afterwards he said, “that song gets at the universal human feeling under the wings of suffering.” He went on to speculate that perhaps it would be the black American struggle that would finally succeed in breaking the hold of racism over white society.

How is prophetic thought and action at work in today’s world?

One prominent place is in the Industrial Area Foundation movement founded by Saul Alinsky, which my colleague, Jeffrey Stout has describes so well in his book Blessed Are the Organized. Another is the Catholic Worker movement, which has houses of hospitality for the poor around the U.S. and in Europe as well. The prophetic struggle goes on in local communities across the nation. Hopeful examples exist in the activism of the Industrial Areas Foundation chapters and similar networks of organizing for social change that continue to crop up in local struggles. Typically based in existing congregations, churches, synagogues, and mosques, the foundation encourages local people to meet and identify issues of common concern. Citizens are encouraged to speak of their own experiences, tell their own stories to encourage empathy, and raise the possibility of imagining change in their lives. Home meetings serve to identify and recruit leaders from the community. Mass meetings are structured to hold public officials accountable for problems of concern. The IAF has fifty-nine affiliates active across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Germany. Jeffrey Stout has told their story in his book. By 2015 the Catholic Worker movement organized by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in the 1930s had grown to 207 communities across the U.S. and 25 abroad, committed to nonviolence and hospitality for the poor and homeless. Circulation of the Catholic Worker newspaper had reached approximately ninety thousand. And several local Worker houses had established their own newspapers in Los Angeles, Houston, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia.

RaboteauAlbert J. Raboteau is the Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion Emeritus at Princeton University. His books include Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South, A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History, and Canaan Land: A Religious History of African Americans. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey. He is the author of American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice.

Leah Wright Rigueur: Black conservatives do not speak for the black majority

Aeon Magazine logo

By Leah Wright Rigueur

Published in association with Aeon Magazine, a Princeton University Press partner.

When black voices rally to validate and defend extremist ideas, political observers should watch with heavy skepticism. In April, the National Diversity Coalition for Donald Trump launched a campaign in support of the controversial presidential candidate. ‘This man is no more racist than Mickey Mouse is on the Moon!’ Bruce LeVell, the coalition’s co-founder and a businessman from Georgia, told The Washington Post. Better yet, what are we to make of the former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson’s puzzling endorsement of Trump?

At a moment when black Americans, of all ideological persuasions, are deeply concerned with a status quo in the United States that allows racial inequality (and discrimination) to fester, black boosters for the party’s right wing have insisted that the ‘race issue’ is a distraction. Some even claim that black America will benefit from a Trump presidency. This kind of posturing might seem mystifying to some degree, but it is not new; there have always been black people willing to endorse the nation’s most extreme figures. The civil rights activist James Meredith worked for the Republican senator Jesse Helms in 1989, after all.

Employing black ‘surrogates’ or spokespeople for extremist candidates has become a way of validating non-traditional ideas as ‘authentic’, while at the same time invalidating accusations of racism. While the Democratic Party also has employed black voices in this manner (much to the distaste of its critics), the Republican Party’s use of conservative black voices is all the more fascinating because black conservatives’ beliefs are generally at odds with mainstream black opinion.

Egregious contemporary and historical examples abound. Consider the National Black Silent Majority Committee (BSMC), a black conservative organisation launched on 4 July 1970. Founded by Clay Claiborne (a former Republican National Committee staffer acquitted of defrauding black voters in the 1964 presidential election), the BSMC professed a faith in free-market enterprise and two-party competition, and adhered to a strict anti-communist, anti-welfare, anti-busing, pro-‘law and order’ agenda. Unlike other black Republican groups of the era, the BSMC articulated neither public nor private complaints about race and the Republican Party. Instead, the organisation exclusively blamed black people for the country’s problems with race. Upon the group’s founding, the civil rights activist Julian Bond called the BSMC a ‘trick’ to ‘subvert black political hopes on the altar of white supremacy and political expediency’.

The BMSC used Richard Nixon’s rhetoric of a forgotten class of Americans, claiming to speak for a majority of silent black Americans, ‘sick and tired of the agitation, shouting, burning and subversion carried out in their name by self-styled militant groups’. The organisation assembled a high-profile group of black men and women willing to endorse conservative values, including the national president of the Negro Elks fraternal order, the founders and publishers of the black newspapers the Atlanta Daily World and the Arizona Tribune (now The Informant), and dozens of black ministers from around the country. Black women also took on prominent roles as BSMC surrogates – an unusual occurrence, as black women were, and still are, the least likely of any demographic to support the Republican Party.

In 1972, for example, Mary Parrish was the star speaker of the BSMC’s 52-city ‘Black Youth Voter Crusade’. Parrish, a black Democrat-turned-Republican (who started her career campaigning for Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm) used her pulpit to claim that liberals had ‘politically enslaved’ black people, especially black women; the Republican Party, she insisted, without providing tangible examples, represented the best hope for the ‘continued advancement of black people’. Parrish’s unusual turn as the ‘face’ of the BSMC is not an isolated event. Today, black women are among the most high-profile of the Trump campaign’s spokespeople.

But such minority endorsements are sporadic, and rarely translate into partisan support. When the BSMC launched in 1970, more than 72 per cent of black Americans held unfavourable views of President Nixon. Currently, about 80 per cent of black people hold unfavourable views of Trump. For both the BSMC and Trump’s black surrogates, this disconnect is consistent with their resolute dismissal of issues related to racial and social inequality, and their harsh criticism of black people who reject the Republican nominee.

Back in the 1970s, the BSMC readily admitted that the vast majority of its supporters were white. As the historian Matt Lassiter has suggested, the Nixon White House ‘orchestrated’ the creation of the BSMC to provide a counter-narrative to black moderate, and militant, voices, which also appealed to ‘white voters who believed that the civil rights and antiwar movements had gone too far’.

My own research shows that the all-white National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) was also a heavy financial backer of the BSMC from the start, providing start-up funds, financing the group’s cross-country ‘Patriotism’ and ‘Anti-Busing’ crusades, regularly highlighting the BSMC’s adventures to the public, and arranging private meetings with influential white officials.

In an unintentionally ironic moment in 1970, the then South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, a vocal cheerleader for the BSMC, declared that the organisation’s existence proved that plenty of black radicals were attempting to ‘speak for groups which they do not actually represent’. Indeed, by the mid-1970s, politicians actively used the BSMC to elicit broader political support for right-wing agendas largely rejected by black audiences, by suggesting that the group spoke for a black majority. The BSMC also provided a buffer against charges of racism, with white politicians arguing that their own policies couldn’t possibly be racist or discriminatory, since the BSMC endorsed them. In this way, the BSMC reassured white conservative voters uncomfortable with the social taboo of racism.

The BSMC is just one example of many organisations (and individuals) to emerge in the past few decades in support of ideas on the fringes of black political thought. As a result, black Republicans critical of their party’s position on race saw their influence within the party dwindle, as groups such as the BSMC saw their stock rise among the Republican Party’s right wing. New quantitative research suggests that little has changed; Republican politicians are more interested in championing right-wing black Republicans whose views on race fall outside mainstream black political thought than those whose race-conscious messages are more closely aligned with the attitudes of black people at large. For most black Republicans within the party, this sends a clear and troubling message – power for the party’s minorities often comes by way of endorsing right-wing extremism.

Thus Trump’s turn to minority (especially black) spokespeople should come as little surprise. But while race lends an air of legitimacy to extremist candidates, it rarely presents an accurate picture of black political opinion. If anything, when the extremists play the ‘race card’, genuine concern for racial issues are likely to be buried.

Leah Wright Rigueur The Loneliness of the Black Republicanis an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is the author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power (2015).

BOOK FACT FRIDAY

BOOK FACT: African American fraternal orders waged legal fights to defend their right to exist—fights that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where African Americans ultimately prevailed. Involving some of the lawyers who later went on to work with the NAACP, this struggle won some of the major victories in the quest for equal civil rights in America.

What a Mighty Power We Can Be:
African American Fraternal Groups and the Struggle for Racial Equality

By Theda Skocpol, Ariane Liazos, & Marshall Ganz

The authors demonstrate how African American fraternal groups played key roles in the struggle for civil rights and racial integration.

From the nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries, millions of American men and women participated in fraternal associations–self-selecting brotherhoods and sisterhoods that provided aid to members, enacted group rituals, and engaged in community service. Even more than whites did, African Americans embraced this type of association; indeed, fraternal lodges rivaled churches as centers of black community life in cities, towns, and rural areas alike. Using an unprecedented variety of secondary and primary sources–including old documents, pictures, and ribbon-badges found in eBay auctions–this book tells the story of the most visible African American fraternal associations.

We invite you to read chapter one online:
http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s8267.html