12 Black Interfaith Leaders Who Shaped America
March 14, 2022
This article was first published on July 1, 2020.
“I sing of a new American,” Pauli Murray wrote in her poem, “Prophecy,” in 1969. As a priest, legal scholar, and civil rights activist, Murray recognized the often tragic history of the United States, particularly for Black people and institutions. Her hope for a new America was both tempered and inspired by that knowledge. As we approach our national independence day this year, I’m inspired by her to look at the holiday as a chance to commemorate the past, but, even more importantly, to demand a better future. Working at an interfaith organization, I often look to historical figures or institutions from various worldviews for a sense of how to live my values in the world. The following list of Black Americans, including Pauli Murray, all have showcased the “illimitable heights” (another insightful line from Murray) America can reach when we demand justice, life, and liberty for all.
First African Baptist Church (founded 1773) – The story of First African Baptist Church of Savannah, Georgia, cannot be encapsulated by the name of anyone leader or member but its historical legacy stands as a testament to soul-stirring perseverance. Founded in 1773, its sanctuary was completed in 1859 and, as noted in its official history, “the holes in the floor are in the shape of an African prayer symbol known to some as a BaKongo Cosmogram.” These holes enabled escaping slaves to be guarded under the church’s floors on their path to freedom. Many of the pews have West African Arabic script engraved on them, a recognition that many of the enslaved people that built and passed through the church were Muslim. For more information on FABC, you can listen to Chicago’s Rev. Otis Moss III tell this story of his relationship with the church in conversation with the Inner-City Muslim Action Network.
Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) – The daughter of a slave, Bethune became one of the most important Black educators and activists in the 20th century. As the founder of a training school that served African American women and later became Bethune-Cookman College, Bethune was influenced by her Christian background and the teachings of Gandhi to advocate for a civil rights agenda inclusive of a broad range of religious and worldview traditions. “Any idea that keeps anybody out is too small for this age—open your heart and let everybody in,” she advised her students.
A Phillip Randolph (1889-1979) – A singular figure in American history, Randolph’s influence on labor and civil rights movements traversed presidential administrations and historical eras. A humanist, socialist, an influential mentor to activists like Bayard Rustin, Randolph built the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters into the first predominantly African-American labor union, successfully demanded the desegregation of the U.S. armed forces, and originated the idea for a “march on Washington” by the civil rights group.
Howard Thurman (1899-1981) – Through his work as the Dean of Howard University’s Chapel and in founding interracial and interfaith churches in the 1940s, Howard Thurman influenced a generation of Civil Rights Era leader, including a young Martin Luther King, Jr. His travels in southeast Asia exposed him to Gandhi and other influential religious figures. Back in the United States, his ministries focused on bringing people of different faiths, races, and classes together.
Pauli Murray (1910-1985) – A civil rights activist who utilized Gandhian techniques, a legal scholar who pioneered the term “Jane Crow” to describe discrimination faced by Black women, and one of the first female Black Episcopal priests, Pauli Murray’s legacy crosses barriers of religion, law, and race relations. Her legal scholarship advocated for equal rights based on a deeper understanding of how identities intersect for each individual. Still relatively unknown compared to her Civil Rights Era peers, Murray recognized the power inherent in bringing together diverse racial and religious groups over shared values.
Bayard Rustin (1912-1987) – Rustin dedicated his life to political and social change in America and his roots as a Quaker informed his quest for revolutionary change achieved through powerful, but peaceful, means. His organizing ability influenced freedom rides in the South, the Montgomery bus boycott, and, perhaps his most notable achievement, the 1963 March on Washington. Throughout his life and work, Rustin sought diverse coalitions sharing common values, even across differing worldviews.
Malcolm X (1925-1965) – At the heart of Malcolm X’s political and social activism was his deep commitment to Islam. Whether in condemning police violence against African-Americans in the United States or advocating for human rights abroad, Malcolm X advocated for the dismantling of white supremacy in all facets of life. His message resonated across religious and class barriers and inspired a generation of young civil rights leaders.
Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) – Today, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. is an international icon and national hero. But he was born the son of a Baptist preacher, became one himself, and, in his pursuit of civil rights, he forged an interracial and interfaith alliance that demanded that the United States live up to its claims of freedom and equality for all. His work with religious leaders like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Thich Nhat Hanh showcased the deep spiritual foundations of one of the most momentous social movements of the past one hundred years.
Muhammad Ali (1942-2016) – The championship boxer Muhammad Ali converted to Islam in 1964 and two years later refused to serve in Vietnam based on the commitments of his faith. As a prominent sports figure, his fights against bigotry and indignity were public records during a turbulent time in American life. When many insisted on calling him by his birth name, Cassius Clay, it was Jewish sportscaster and friend, Howard Cosell, who publicly called him by his chosen name. At Ali’s funeral, which embodied the diversity of this country, his friend, comedian Billy Crystal, told the story of Ali inviting him to take a run at his country club in Louisville – Crystal could not join him because they did not admit Jews. When he heard this Ali declared he would never again step foot in that club. As an athletic and cultural icon, he looms large in contemporary American stories of faith, sport, and the demand for dignity.
Reverend William Barber– As the founder and president of the Repairers of the Breach and one of the leaders of the national Poor Peoples’ Campaign, the Reverend William Barber has dedicated his life to making sure that moral and spiritual values are at the forefront of political and social change in America in this time. By building a multifaith and multiethnic coalition, Reverend Barber has launched a “moral revolution of values;” bringing the concerns of America’s communities of color, LGBTQ individuals, immigrants, and the poor to those in power.
The Reverend angel Kyodo Williams – A Zen Buddhist priest, author, and spiritual instructor, Reverend angel Kyodo Williams has blazed a trail as “one of the wisest voices on social evolution and the spiritual aspect of social healing.” Rooted in the Buddhist tradition, her work has reached across worldviews to encourage transformative practices around race, love, and self-worth. Her own personal spiritual story has opened the space for others to pursue their own healing work in communities across the country.
Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum – One of only a few African-American rabbis, Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum has dedicated her career to both exploring the deep spiritual dimensions of Judaism and in connecting Jewish and African-American communities in urban areas across the country. Leading with a sense of rachmanos, or mercy, Berenbaum has become a young leader for racial justice within the Jewish community.
Carr Harkrader is the former Director of the Interfaith Leadership Institute at IFYC, a national gathering of college students and educators focused on interfaith leadership and helps manage the development of many of IFYC’s educational resources. A native of North Carolina, Carr has long been interested in America’s understanding of race and history and, before working at IFYC, taught history to high school students.