Civil Rights Act Anniversary: The Church and the Civil Rights Act

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We often see history as the work of great individuals. In 1964, critics condemned President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for not staying in traditional roles. The president was preaching. The preacher was moving from personal faith into the political world. 

King was the visible leader of the Civil Rights Movement, pushing the president and Congress to act. His personal faith was a testimony revealed in courage and imprisonment, reminding many people of biblical figures. He could have understood his role as just changing hearts and minds. King insisted that morality had to be part of political activity.

Are we dependent on charismatic powerful leaders alone to bring change? Must we wait for the next prophet?

The institutional church was crucial in developing political support to bring racial change. Laws were passed only after Americans in every part of the United States demanded change. The democratic American system was slowly aroused. The president would not lead without significant public support. He had to know racial justice was not just an issue for blacks in the South. He had to have strong bipartisan support in Congress.

The organized work of the church through boards, agencies and ecumenical cooperation aroused believers who were also loyal citizens. Then-Rep. Gerald Ford explained to me that the Civil Rights Movement had to make our issues matter to people at the grassroots level outside the South and Northern urban centers. 

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Interpreter Magazine invited six who were involved in the struggle for U.S. civil rights to share their reflections. 

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The familiar images of burning buses and burning churches in the South, of nonviolent demonstrators and martyrs, began to open these "silent" Americans. Denominational structures and the ecumenical work of the National Council of Churches in traditional agencies and in new structures such as the Delta Ministry reached these people. For several years, they distributed literature and urged discussion of racism in local churches and other settings.

Then, perhaps more importantly, civil rights workers were sent to almost every state to talk with small groups about their personal experiences (denial of voting rights, prison, torture), and people were urged to pray for us and for America AND to let their members of Congress know racial justice did matter. These good folk were urged to write letters to their local newspaper as well as to political leaders. 

Slowly, enough Americans everywhere became involved, and Washington responded. However, the successful massive organization was achieved through those ecumenical and denominational agencies and staff we sometimes ignore and often criticize as insignificant to the personal faith and life of the local church.

The Rev. Edwin King is a retired member of the Mississippi Annual Conference. In the 1960s, he was appointed chaplain of historically black Tougaloo College by Bishop Joseph Golden of the Methodist Church's racially segregated Central Jurisdiction. He was close to Medgar Evers and spoke with him shortly before his assassination and preached the eulogy for the three voting rights workers murdered in Mississippi in June 1964. King was an organizer of Freedom Summer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and spoke at events ranging from the 1964 General Conference and Democratic National Convention to church meetings across the United States. His wife, Jeanette, also taught at Tougaloo and helped organize the Freedom Schools in Mississippi. King lives in Jackson, Miss. Ed King's Mississippi -- Behind the Scenes of Freedom Summer will be published in October by the University Press of Mississippi.

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