Smart Suits, Tattered Boots, Korie Little Edwards and Michelle Oyakawa. New York: New York University Press, 2022.
Summary: A study, using interviews of Black Ohio religious leaders and research studies of mobilization efforts to explore whether Black religious leaders are still able to mobilize civil rights efforts, and if so, how, when, and why they do.
The story of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s to 1970’s is a story of a religious movement–marchers mobilized, trained, and inspired in churches, from which many of the marches began, voting rights efforts encouraged by churches, and almost invariably led by Black men in suits, white dress shirts, and dark ties (with many women contributing mightily to the effort).
Fifty years later, it is a new time, where systemic injustices against Blacks remain in different forms–mass incarceration of Black men, police-involved shootings or killings of Blacks, new voting restrictions and redistricting that on analysis seem directed to prevent or dilute the Black vote. The authors of this study ask the question of whether and where Black religious leadership figures into addressing these injustices. The study centers in on Ohio, where the two researchers live, using a case study of the 2012 presidential election and Black voter mobilization efforts as well as interviews with 54 black clergy and eleven faith-based community organization (FBCO) and race-based civic organization heads. All names of interviewees are pseudonyms as are most of the organizations mentioned.
The study discovered that the 2012 election was an example where religious leaders served to effectively mobilize efforts to register and get out the vote. Principal leaders in the religious communities were key–people who were widely respected by other clergy in their networks. When these leaders said to others that they should give their efforts to mobilizing the vote, they did. Furthermore, the researchers learned that a key motivation was actually not re-electing a Black president but rather countering efforts being made to block Black access to the vote, rolling back a key achievement of the civil rights movement.
The researchers also found that Black clergy tended to mobilize in their religious networks around historic civil rights issues but tended to address other effects of systemic racism that disadvantaged Blacks by placing blame on Blacks for failures and urging stronger Black work ethics, rather than addressing the systemic issues. The term this “the Black Protestant ethic.”
They found that the historic influence of Black civic organizations like the NAACP, the Urban League, and others has waned in their organizing capacities, and that many Black religious leaders have turned to FBCOs instead. The difficulty is that these efforts are multi-racial, often directed by whites without sufficient grasp of the community issues, and are funded by foundations, who often are focused on quick, short-term results rather than longer term substantive change.
Consequently, many Black clergy may engage for a time and discover that the amount of work and the real impact do not warrant their continued engagement. This is exemplified in chapter six of the book, which profiles three highly influential leaders (under pseudonyms)–one a civil rights era principal leader, the general, one described as the warrior, who took on racial injustices in his city until he was both excluded and burned out and needed to take care of himself. The third, called the protege’ was a younger leader in the early years of engaging justice issues, and who was both passionate, but also somewhat abstracted in his language.
What I found most striking was the contrast between the general, “Wyoming Brashear,” and the others. The researchers also noted it:
“Brashear stands out from others in this study because he consistently and intentionally aimed to reconcile his worldview, one that was historically and globally situated, with his Christian faith, drawing on biblical references to provide theological bases for his positions. This suggests that Brashear pondered matters, that his positions were not taken for granted. It was uncommon for the pastors in this study to reference specific Bible scriptures when explaining their social or theological views” (p.114).
I thought this significant. “Brashear” was one of those who had been part of the Civil Rights movement, one of the criteria for being a principal leader. In addition to the shared experience, which gave credibility, I wondered if there was a shared ethos of biblically and theologically informed activism tracing back to King, son and father, and beyond them to the likes of Howard Thurman, W.E.B. DuBois, and Frederick Douglass.
One of the questions discussed in the conclusion is whether this religious leader influence will continue when those of the Civil Rights era pass. The researchers propose that one direction is expanding the remit from civil rights to freedom. I think that could be an interesting and important direction. I also find myself wondering if a recovery and renewal of the biblically, theologically, and spiritually informed impetus that fired religious leaders in past mobilization efforts might also be important. I think the researchers raise important questions about the Black Protestant Ethic. This may need to be both deconstructed and re-imagined. I wonder though, if there is to be power to mobilize within the Black Church, whether it must be done within a biblical and theological framework rather than bifurcating spirituality and social activism.
Smart Suits, Tattered Boots raises important questions in the face of movements like #BlackLivesMatter that have arisen outside the church. Has the day of clergy-led, church-based mobilizing efforts passed? What role should faith-based community organizations play? Are movements like #BlackLivesMatter a new wineskin for mobilizing? What if any part should Black religious leaders play? This book has me wondering about all these things.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.