“Giving a Shout for Freedom, Part I” by Michael B. Friedland

Reference: The Sixties Project

The Reverend Malcolm Boyd, the Right Reverend Paul Moore, Jr., and the Civil Rights and Antiwar Movements of the 1960s and 1970s

Michael B. Friedland, History Department, Boston College

This paper was presented at the Sixties Generations conference, March 1993, Fairfax, VA.

When asked in late 1964 what mistakes he may have made in leading the civil rights movement, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., replied that his “most pervasive mistake” was believing that because the cause of racial equality was just, white ministers, “once their Christian consciences were challenged, would rise to our aid.” Instead, when direct appeals were made to white clergymen, “most folded their hands–and some even took stands against us.” The role of the churches was to project the social gospel, he continued, and challenge society. The church used to be the “thermostat of society. But today,” he concluded, “I feel that too much of the church is merely a thermometer, which measures rather than molds popular opinion.”1

While King was referring specifically to southern white clergy, his judgment could have served for the majority of white ministers and priests throughout the nation, for only a small number of Christian (and Jewish) clergy, the group that theologian Harvey Cox termed “the new breed” of clergy, became active in the civil rights and, later, the antiwar movement. The great majority of clergy were either pietists, who believed that their duty was to proclaim the word of God and focus their attention on the afterlife, and not involve themselves in civil rights and antiwar protests which they considered to be secular and political; or theologically and politically conservatives who believed that religion, like politics, had a duty to uphold society’s traditions, and therefore spoke out on behalf of the status quo.2 On the whole, the majority of parishioners felt most comfortable with the latter types, fearing that the activism of the “new breed” went beyond theology to embrace uncertain political solutions to problems that the laity were not convinced even existed. One is tempted to recall Samuel Butler’s late nineteenth century description of English parishioners: “good, sensible fellows who…were most contented when things were changing least; tolerant, if not lovers, of all that was familiar, haters of all that was unfamiliar; they would have been equally horrified at hearing the Christian religion doubted, and at seeing it practiced.”3

As a rule, the majority of priests, ministers, and rabbis who involved themselves in protests and other public demonstrations tended to come from positions where they were not subject to direct pressure from the laity and did not risk losing their jobs: bishops or other members of the denominational hierarchy, administrators, seminarians or the faculty of divinity schools, and campus chaplains.4 Thus it was that the ranks of clerical activists included such prominent religious leaders as the Reverend Robert McAfee Brown, professor of religion at Stanford University, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, Jr., Presbyterian chaplain of Yale University, and Catholic priests Philip and Daniel Berrigan. Even the Episcopal Church, a denomination which has the reputation of being rather staid, aristocratic, and conservative in bearing, had its share of clergymen who involved themselves in social activism.5 Two such individuals were the Right Reverend Paul Moore, Jr., Suffragan Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C., and later Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, and the Reverend Malcolm Boyd, a writer, playwright, and national field director of the Episcopal Society for Racial and Cultural Unity. For these two men, the Gospel meant nothing if it did not stand for the inclusiveness of all believers, and their social activism did not end with the waning of the civil rights movement and the end of the Vietnam War. The decades following the 1960s found them continuing to fight for liberal causes, including the ordination of women and homosexuals into the Episcopal ministry, federal assistance to the homeless, and the establishment of AIDs ministries.

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