Reflection: Civil Rights and Spirituality

By Mandy Sun, (C’25)

A limestone sculpture by Raymond Kaskey depicting three ministers, John Thomas Porter, Nelson H. Smith, & A. D. King, kneeling in prayer. Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, AL photo by Mandy Sun, (C’25)

Faith lays the foundation for justice. When I applied for the College Global Seminar, I was interested in community organizing but had felt disillusioned and burnt out from it. I was seeking to understand how religion and spirituality could sustain a movement and could extend an argument for human rights, and seeking a thoughtful way to combat hopelessness and inspire change—Civil Rights and African American Spirituality was that.  

Our class’s curriculum exposed us to various theologians that had a deep influence on famous civil rights leaders. Howard Thurman’s book, Jesus and the Disinherited, inspired Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches and nonviolent strategies. I was particularly captivated by Thurman’s theory of love and hate—expanding it from the known intense intrinsic emotions to its role in external power dynamics. Thurman’s revelations profoundly transformed my life by allowing me to reflect upon my interpersonal relationships and my role in the world. Specifically, I was able to examine my own grievances and disappointments with unjust worldly components and come to a resolution. In a way, I found peace through this class. 

The immersion trip was integral in expanding upon this theory-based class by interacting with locals and individuals from the ground up. As we walked from museum to church to historical site, I was able to observe the current-day surroundings and wonder how such a history produced the present. For example, in Atlanta, Georgia, our group was confronted with various murals and street art around Auburn Ave, a once bustling street for Black businesses that quickly became disenfranchised after Urban Renewal policies. Figures like John Lewis, Ella Baker, and Fanny Lou Hammer danced across the walls as though protecting the city. The mural’s presence reminds visitors of an uphill battle for racial justice and the unjust history that still plagues the city. I was particularly fascinated by the presence of these murals and the surrounding large corporations and franchises that migrated to Atlanta. For example, Coca-Cola was founded in Atlanta and promoted greater inclusion efforts. Indirectly, the city supported religious leaders and moral righteousness to avoid controversy—-wanting to appear as a city too great to deal with racial strife. This encounter prompted curiosity about the role businesses can have in the religious sector and the performativity of external actions. Perhaps Atlanta is a case study scenario of how religion or spirituality is necessary for social justice because, without the meaningful connection, it would be an easy slip into performativity. This is in contrast to Alabama towns and cities which were less polished but more externally spiritual. 

The Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, AL photo by Connor Martin, (C’25)

Selma had several churches erected on each block, and I encountered several strangers who had cited God as the reason for their kindness. Within Alabama, I was engrossed in several of its museums. The Legacy Museum captivated me the most. In addition to the moving lynching memorial, its museum expanded upon the other museums by drawing a connection from slavery to incarceration. I was shocked that the incarceration of children had not been illegal until recently. Another part of the exhibit featured letters from incarcerated victims from the late 1900s to just last year. I was struck by the desperation and hopelessness hidden behind their words; it was heart-rending and disturbing. Following the informational exhibits, we entered a vast room decorated with the faces of civil rights leaders and filled with beautiful gospel music. The beauty found within those walls brought about a bittersweet feeling of intense sadness and hope. I sat there reflecting upon their lives but also my own existence and trajectory. I was confronted with my own disillusionment and regret. 

Following these exhibits, we also visited several Baptist churches at which Martin Luther King, Jr. had spoken. Most of which were maintained and led by the descendants of other organizers surrounding Martin Luther King, Jr. I was fascinated by the community that emerged following King and their commitment to teaching the youth. Visiting Baptist churches where Martin Luther King, Jr. had spoken was also enlightening, though I noted the centrality of King in the movement often overshadowed the contributions of other organizers, especially women, and people of color. For example, at the Rosa Parks Museum, Claudette Colvin was not mentioned once despite protesting courageously weeks before Parks. 

The experience was one of mixed feelings about the state of social justice and the civil rights movement today. I still have many questions pertaining to how we uplift intersectional personalities and the benefits of nonviolence over self-defense. However, one thing became clear: religion and ethics are necessary to understand (even if one might not subscribe) in the pursuit of social justice; it is necessary for our evolution to become better human beings.