“The Saints Go Marching”: The Church of God in Christ and the Civil Rights Movement in Memphis, Tennessee, 1954-1968
Pinn, Anthony B.
Doctor of Philosophy
Having assumed black Pentecostals are “otherworldly” or detached from politics and this-worldly concerns, many religious and civil rights scholars have ignored black Holiness-Pentecostals’ involvements in the Civil Rights Movement and instead focused on the roles of black Baptists and Methodists. Primarily guided by historical, sociological, theo-ethical, and hermeneutical methods, this dissertation examines Church of God in Christ (COGIC) members’ engagements in the Civil Rights Movement in Memphis, Tennessee, 1954-1968. I chose Memphis as the location to examine these assumptions because the most renowned Civil Rights leader, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., delivered his last sermon at Mason Temple Church of God in Christ (COGIC), the headquarters of the largest and oldest black holiness-Pentecostal denomination. The dissertation argues that Memphis COGIC members were not divorced from the Memphis Movement but endeavored to combat racial injustice and inequality through a diversity of means, including through politics, nonviolent direct action, and spiritual quest. I contend that despite being marginalized and treated as outsiders on account of their race and religious faith, prior to the Civil Rights Movement early saints affirmed their identity as United States citizens, valued American democratic ideas of freedom and equality, and endeavored to advance democratic principles through participating in civic life. Additionally, when the Civil Rights Movement came to Memphis in the 1950s, COGIC members joined and worked alongside black church leaders from other denominations and engaged in nearly every aspect of the struggle, including political campaigns, desegregation efforts, and the Sanitation Workers Strike. Furthermore, I argue that Holiness-Pentecostal theology informed the activism of Memphis COGIC Civil Rights activists. Affirming his Holiness-Pentecostal heritage, Bishop J.O. Patterson Sr., a prominent Memphis Civil Rights activist, sought to persuade blacks in general and to remind black Christian activists in particular of the indispensability of spiritual presence and empowerment for social struggle. My research findings provoke scholars of religion to rethink the meaning and implications of otherworldliness. Additionally, this research indicates that there is greater complexity to black churches involvement in the Civil Rights Movement besides the contributions of black Baptists and Methodists.