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Pews and Picket Lines

The heroic era of civil rights struggles is not remembered as a women’s movement, but watching the old news footage of some demonstrations—the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, for example—you might wonder why. The public face of the protests was male: leaders, spokesmen, orators. But everywhere women filled the ranks, marching, picketing, swaying to the freedom songs. “[T]he movement of the fifties and sixties was largely carried largely by women,” declared Ella Baker, the legendary civil rights leader, trying to set the record straight. “[W]omen carried the movement. There is no doubt about it," testified a male leader from rural Mississippi. “I mean, there were some men who stood up, but it was a minority.”

The same could be said of the black church because those were the same women who flocked to Sunday morning services in the Methodist, Baptist, and Pentecostal churches, dressed in stylish hats and prim pumps. Bettye Collier-Thomas’s book shows how central those churches were to their lives, and how important their patient spirituality was to African American politics—and also how restless they were about always playing second fiddle to men. It is an encyclopedic chronicle of women’s efforts to achieve recognition adequate to their contributions and religious leadership proportional to their numbers.

Those numbers were huge—anywhere from 65 percent to 90 percent of black congregations. And so were the contributions. Regardless of being at the very bottom of the ladder in their earnings, African American women were the principal backers and fundraisers of all the black denominations. “The Negro Church means the Negro woman,” proclaimed a tart Nannie Burroughs, leader of the Baptist Women’s Convention, in 1911. Their donations flowed into minister’s salaries and into bricks and mortar (or lumber and storefront rents). Burroughs spelled it out: “Without her, the race could not properly support five hundred churches in the whole world…. She carries the burdens of the Church.”

Still, when it came to women, the churches set aside the principle of equality it fought for in race matters, as if it had no relevance to the question of discrimination against women. Pentecostals and the small Holiness churches were more open. But Baptists and Methodists, the major denominations, long excluded lay women from voting in church matters, and prohibited their full confirmation as deacons and elders, and barred them from ordination as ministers. 

The conflict began in the 1880s, soon after emancipation, when in the South a generation of freedwomen—confident, assertive, and educated in the black colleges and schools that sprang up during Reconstruction—pressed their case for inclusion. The opening skirmishes were fought with biblical texts. On the women’s side was an honor roll (first compiled by female abolitionist-feminists in the 1830s) that heralded strong women who took matters into their own hands and earned divine approval: Esther, Ruth, Deborah, Mary, Martha. They cited the Apostle Paul’s most expansive teaching about sexual differences: “[T]here is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." Their opponents retorted with Paul’s hard line on sexual difference, the draconian rules that he laid down for the early church: female believers should dress down, not up, and they should remain quiet in services, and they absolutely could not lead: “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”

Dissenters did not lack allies among the clergy. Henry McNeal Turner, a leading bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, bridled at the habit of criticizing the aspirations of the very people upon whom the church depended. “[O]ur women are the only men we have,” he charged, “so let them alone; they are better than our men any way you take them.” This was in 1896, eight years after he offended conservatives by ordaining a woman as a deacon. In the AME and AME Zion, the position of deaconess was one compromise, although the appendage “ess” announced “second-class," as it always does (“poetess”). And Baptist churches, regardless of the autonomy of each congregation, were if anything more zealous in sidelining women. After World War II, however, much began to change—but not everything. Across the denominations, women won the right to vote and to be ordained to the ministry, though until the late twentieth century they remained a rarity among pastors, and to this day the Convention of Southern Baptists affirms that Scripture limits the ministry to men.

Collier-Thomas stresses that overt rebellion was never an option, nor was the searing critique of the male hierarchy that white Protestant women eventually produced in the 1970s and 1980s. In a segregated society, solidarity between African American men and women was a practical necessity as well as a symbolic requirement for the “race.” Emotionally and theologically, the stakes in a unified spiritual community that was also a race community were high, expressed in family metaphors of church mothers and sisters. This made male recalcitrance a fact of life: something to be accepted and worked around rather than confronted head-on. Devout women recognized the injustice, but after 1900 they skirted the barriers by turning their vast network into a redoubt of missionary activity and political action. Deaconesses took to the road as traveling preachers; Baptist women became lauded evangelists. Lay women formed societies that opened up foreign missionary work to a few of their own.

The line between church work and civic work was blurry. The National Association of Colored Women (NACW), formed in 1896, introduced a generation of gifted speakers, writers and organizers onto the national stage. They had come of age in church women’s groups, and many went on to lay the groundwork for the civil rights movement. While cordoned off in same-sex groups, they paved the way for their successors, women such as the late Dorothy Height who knew what it was like to talk with presidents.

The turn-of-the-century woman became an unacknowledged wing of progressive reform. Everywhere, and especially in the South, where social services were parsimonious to begin with and nonexistent for blacks, African American female societies set up a kind of alternative welfare infrastructure for blacks. Clergymen objected at first: they did not like to see their fundraisers drift away. One journalist recalled that in the NACW’s early years church elders insisted on going to the meetings lest “the silly women would pray for something they did not need.”

The NACW was also a force for women’s suffrage, a cause whose urgency was recognized by, among other, Nannie Burroughs, the dynamo who took charge in 1900 of the newly-created Women’s Convention of the Baptist Church and transformed it into a bastion of independent power. Twenty years earlier, and even ten, Burroughs’s outlet would have been her local Baptist church—but at the helm of the Women’s Convention she commanded the loyalties of millions. (The Baptist Church counted 4.5 million members in the 1920s.) The daughter of a domestic servant, Burroughs championed the laundresses, domestics, and ironers who were objects of pity and uplift to others, including the ladies of the NACW. She understood the need for women’s political power, and in a true feat of diplomacy she persuaded the patriarchs of the Baptist Convention to endorse votes for women in 1914. Until her death in 1961, she did her best to keep the Women’s Convention autonomous—it was a “convention,” not an auxiliary.

African American women frequently spoke of a “woman’s AGE,” with themselves singled out for great things. “The Negro woman is really the new woman of the times, and in possibilities the most interesting woman in America,” proposed Fannier Barrier Williams, a well-to-do NACW member. The tone was oddly upbeat, given the dismal situation of African Americans in the years when Jim Crow set in full force and the number of lynchings reached an all-time high. Regardless of black men’s paralysis—or perhaps because of it—women were convinced that they could act efficaciously. One woman’s prognosis for foreign missions could stand in for the general assessment: Africa was the first step, she said, “but only God knew when women would stop.”

The amazing achievement of women’s suffrage in the 1920’s did more to spur hope. Practically speaking, the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment had no immediate effects. African American women in the South were effectively disenfranchised along with men; and in the North, where blacks did vote, they had as yet little power to choose candidates or to determine the results. It was the first time in American history, though, that even the possibility of universal democracy existed, and black women had played a significant role in the mass movement that won it.

Civil rights organizing in and around the churches intensified. Interracial religious organizations proliferated, devoted to improving race relations in particular cities and denominations. African American women took advantage of them to ally themselves with white Protestant women. “Interracial” was at first a codeword for an all-white organization that admitted a few token blacks, and told them what they should do and how they should behave. But over time, religious ties led to more equitable and effective collaborations, even though they were still riddled with white condescension and racism. Historians now speak of a longer civil rights movement that began as an African American response to race riots after World War I, then steadily grew though the Depression, and gathered force after World War II. The Brown decision in 1954 was a consequence, not a beginning; and Little Rock and Montgomery opened the second act, not the first.

Collier-Thomas supplies the details about a huge part of the less visible institutional labor that laid the groundwork for the heroic era of the 1950s and 1960s. The acronyms of organizations buzz around her pages, but the gist of the story is that large, consolidated interdenominational and interfaith organizations gave women’s efforts shape and durability. They moved well beyond the precepts of late nineteenth-century racial uplift work to address the structural problems of segregation, voting rights, and poverty. Women proved adept at opening paths that led people from the churches into the streets and onto the picket lines.

Jesus, Jobs, and Justice traces a long, complex, and sometimes bitter line of negotiations between black men and women in the churches. At the beginning, Collier-Thomas reiterates the oft-made point that African American women’s commitment to men is the fundamental dynamic: “black women overwhelmingly maintain solidarity with black men in the war against the perpetuation of oppression and institutionalized racism.” The point is indisputable, and also unremarkable: it has become a mantra of black feminism, conceived to counter the tendency of white feminists to see sexual antagonism under every rock. But you can’t help but wonder if at this late date any readers, white or black, need to be reminded.

Collier-Thomas wants to correct unnamed “outsiders and whites” who still expect black women to come up to the mark of some fancied feminist insurgency—skeptics who ask why black women in male-dominated churches toe the line: “Why do many black church women continue to accept second-class citizenship in the institutions they have literally built and sustained?” But sometimes you wonder if she is having this argument mostly with herself. Certainly the question arises in the course of the book—not from outsiders, but from black women themselves.

Historically, the charges and countercharges of the black churches have been necessarily muffled in the presence of whites, who were always ready to jump on evidence of discord between black men and black women as proof of African American maladjustment. So Jesus, Jobs, and Justice brings the history of religious women into the mainstream, where it belongs, but it also opens up the black family quarrel to “outsiders and whites” who might distort it. It’s a delicate venture, and it’s not surprising that a straw man—or woman—might be delegated to draw the harshest conclusions from the expressions of frustration, aggravation, and active dislike that pepper the story—along with the adamantine expressions of loyalty to men.

Lashing out at an AME official who mocked the Women’s Missionary Society, a member charged that he and others like him were known to “let their hair down” in Harlem’s brothels. Disgusted with the unwillingness of Methodist men in Little Rock during the desegregation crisis to volunteer to protect the homes of civil rights activists, Daisy Bates, head of the local NAACP, asked pointedly, “Where are God’s angry men?” Ten years of work chipping away at the segregation of public accommodations readied the Methodist and Baptist professionalsof the Women’s Action Committee in Montgomery, Alabama, to jump into action with a call for a bus boycott when they heard that Rosa Parks was arrested; but when the ministers got involved, they muscled them aside.

Some books need to be written, and this is one of them. We need also another book about the arduous, angry battle between the sexes in the white Protestant churches, and that book, too, will be filled with unhappiness that women sought to pray away, along with uplifting stories of what they did to cope in a spirit of Christian humility. But the fact is that difficult knowledge that crosses the color line in America always carries an extra charge, one that can redound badly on blacks.

Perhaps for that reason, a lot in Collier-Thomas’s long book goes unsaid, and so it is not easy to read. It has the problems of an older, fact-driven history: dates and places pile up, landmarks appear, and names whiz by, seldom to be worked up as characters. Yet it has the virtues of its empiricism as well. These mounds of facts, culled from reams of dusty church minutes, religious monthlies, and ladies’ societies reports, contain the materials to re-imagine an entire political and spiritual history. To paraphrase Virginia Woolf, I would as soon have this history of these ladies praying in the pews as I would the hundred and fiftieth life of George Washington.

Christine Stansell is is a professor of history at the University of Chicago. Her book, The Feminist Promise: 1792 to the Present, will be published by Random House this month.