Race, Religion, and Inequality in the Twentieth-Century United States

Endorsed by the OAH Committee on the Status of African American, Latino/a, Asian American, and Native American (ALANA) Historians and ALANA Histories, the Oral History Association, and the Western History Association

Friday, April 3, 2020, 8:00 AM - 9:30 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Politics; Race; Religion


Historians have long recognized the relationship between race and inequality in the twentieth-century United States. Scholars have identified the connective tissue also between race and religion in American history, and have devoted considerable time and energy to show the connection between the rise of the Religious Right in the aftermath of the civil rights movement. However, few works recognize the multiple nodes of contact between race, inequality and the religious ideas that affirmed the power of white religion and the state in “the American century.”

This panel seeks to illuminate the multitudes of ways that religion and religious peoples have shaped inequality in all its forms and responses to it. Lerone Martin examines how ministers, both Black and white, worked with the Federal Bureau of Investigation to thwart the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Exploring the careers of men he calls “Bureau Clergymen,” Martin explains how the minister’s elevated status within their communities, their media savvy, and their anticommunist politics created a cohort of influential anti-civil rights crusaders. In doing so, both the FBI and their Bureau Clergymen supported a form of white Protestant Christianity, manifesting in a civil religion opposed to social justice. Alison Collis Greene analyzes interracial work camps for youth sponsored by the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen in the 1940s. She argues that these work camps fostered relationship across lines of race, class, and ethnicity. However, the Fellowship’s work of Christian community building proved inadequate to its goals of confronting and eradicating the inequalities endemic to the South’s white supremacist economic system. Angela Tarango investigates San Antonio Texas’s La Trinidad United Methodist Church, the largest Latino Methodist congregation in the 1950s United States. In doing so, she articulates how La Trinidad successfully led to its congregants' attainment of white middle-class Protestant respectability and accompanying securing of political power and influence. Her ethnographic research suggests that La Trinidad accomplished this while embracing its Mexican-American roots and Tejano culture. Through her study, Tarango argues that Methodism functioned as a tool to combat economic and racial inequality for Latino Protestants living in a majority Latino Catholic city controlled by a small group of white elites in Cold War America. Joseph Stuart considers how the Nation of Islam created a new, religio-racial form of masculinity during the Great Depression that celebrated Black Men. After World War II, the Nation of Islam reframed their teachings regarding what made an ideal Black Man to reach the rising number of incarcerated Black men. In doing so, Stuart analyzes how the Nation of Islam’s religious message also worked as a rallying call to Black men that gave them meaning in the face of emasculating circumstances before and after World War II.

Through these papers, these scholars highlight the importance of religion in creating and maintaining social, economic, gendered, and political power in the twentieth-century United States.

Papers Presented

“Los Hijos de Juan y Carlos Wesley”: Mexican-American Methodism in 1950s San Antonio, Racial and Economic Inequality, and the Politics of Assimilation

In the 1950s La Trinidad United Methodist Church, located on the west side of San Antonio, was the largest Latino congregation within the United Methodist Church. This paper explores this era of the “golden age” of Latino Methodism and specifically La Trinidad’s role in in the region as well as Pastor José Espino’s embrace of a message of assimilation and Americanization. During the era of zoot suiters and rising anxiety regarding the “difference” of Latinos in the United States, La Trinidad staked out a trajectory that led to middle-class Protestant respectability to gain influence and power within San Antonio religiously and politically. Yet, the church also celebrated and recognized its Mexican American roots by embracing aspects of Tejano culture. This paper pulls from ethnographic interviews and church documents to fully explore the politics of assimilation and how Methodism becomes a tool to address economic and racial inequality in a majority-Latino Catholic city that was controlled by a white minority.

Presented By
Angela Tarango, Trinity University

Bureau Clergymen

This paper explains how the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) partnered with black and white Protestant ministers to oppose the modern civil rights movement in the 1963–1968 period. These ministers were, what I call, Bureau Clergymen as they helped the FBI maintain prevailing inequitable social arrangements. The FBI anointed these ministers as “Special Service Contacts” and/or placed them on the bureau’s “Special Correspondents Lists.” Far from secret informants, ministers in these official bureau programs enjoyed very public and cooperative relationships with the FBI and were occasionally “called into service” to work in concert with the J. Edgar Hoover’s Bureau. The paper displays how the FBI called upon such ministers to utilize their 1) status, 2) popular media ministry, and 3) Cold War spirituality to publicly discredit the civil rights movement, painting it not as a religious crusade, but rather as a communist take-over. The story moves the scholarship on the FBI beyond the well-known narratives of the bureau’s hostility toward and surveillance of religion and religious adherents, and it reveals how the bureau institutionally embraced a form of white Protestant Christianity and leveraged it into working relationships with black and white Protestant ministers. It also offers a window into the overlooked religious dimensions of the FBI’s opposition to the civil rights movement even as it highlights how black clergy articulated and followed competing ideologies of black liberation.

Presented By
Lerone A. Martin, Washington University in St. Louis

“Their Religion Can Be Defined as ‘Black Man’”: The Nation of Islam’s Message of Black Masculinity, 1931–1958

The Nation of Islam (NOI) rose from the depths of Detroit’s Great Depression. W. D. Fard, the group’s founder, preached black supremacy and taught that black men were created in the image of Allah. He also taught his converts a new racial history, wherein black men had ruled over whites for millions of years. This message, delivered in a period when black unemployment approached 50 percent, presented a religious narrative that defined them as masculine patriarchs—despite the fact that many were unable to fulfill the traditional male role of breadwinner. Thus, despite structural economic and racial inequalities, members of the NOI found pride both in being black and in being a black man through membership in the NOI. Fard’s successor, Elijah Muhammad, also preached the importance of black men to the history of the earth and added and emphasized new doctrines about a coming racial apocalypse, wherein black men would once more rule on earth. However, Muhammad changed his primary focus from unemployed industrial workers to the growing numbers of imprisoned black men after World War II. Just as Fard had taught black men oppressed by racism and poverty in the 1930s, Muhammad gained new followers among men left behind in America’s postwar boom because of structural race issues—particularly incarcerated men. Through analyzing tracts, newspaper articles, oral histories, and government documents, this paper reveals how the Nation of Islam gave black men new ways of claiming a religious form of masculinity in response to economic and racial inequality.

Presented By
Joseph R. Stuart, University of Utah

“Loving Them into Understanding”: Nelle Morton, White Anti-Racism, and Economic Justice in the Post–World War II South

When Nelle Morton, a white woman and head of the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen (FSC), organized a series of interracial work camps in the mid-1940s, she dismissed concerns about local white opponents with assurances of “loving them into understanding.” Morton’s language focused on gently winning over white racists. Yet the work camps she organized took a structural rather than individual approach to white racism. She prioritized relationships with local black community members even as she tried to win over whites. At first modeled on camps run by the peace churches during the interwar years, her camps emphasized interracial cohabitation as key to cultivating Christian community. They also explicitly supported economic cooperatives and other programs designed to circumvent or undermine the racialized capitalist economy of the South. The work camps adopted an egalitarian racial and economic model that Fellowship members deemed an essential feature of genuine Christian community and a blueprint for a more just economic system. Yet their model of an alternative southern economy, their examples of racial and economic justice, proved neither persuasive nor replicable in the South’s entrenched Jim Crow economies. Even as members of the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen recognized that southern communities must play a role in their own transformation, their membership—always predominantly white, male, middle-class, and Protestant—replicated the South’s white supremacist hierarchy. This paper examines the strategies, successes, and shortcomings of Morton and the FSC’s emphasis on Christian love as a route to racial and economic justice.

Presented By
Alison Collis Greene, Emory University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Judith Weisenfeld, Princeton University
Judith Weisenfeld teaches in the Department of Religion at Princeton University where she holds the Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion and Associated Faculty in the Department of African American Studies and the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies. She also serves on the Executive Committees of the Center for the Study of Religion and the Program in American Studies at Princeton University.

Weisenfeld's research focuses on early twentieth-century African American religious history, and she has been especially interested in the relation of religion to constructions of race; the impact on black religious life of migration, immigration, and urbanization; African American women’s religious history; and religion in film and popular culture. She is currently an editor of the journal Religion & American Culture and an Organization of American Historians Distinguished Lecturer.

Presenter: Alison Collis Greene, Emory University
Alison Collis Greene is Associate Professor of American Religious History at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and author of No Depression in Heaven: The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Transformation of Religion in the Delta, which was awarded the Southern Historical Association’s 2016 Charles Sydnor Prize. Her current work explores the history of rural religious reform and conservation in the modern South.

Presenter: Lerone A. Martin, Washington University in St. Louis
Lerone A. Martin is the Associate Professor of Religion and Politics in the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in Saint Louis.
Martin is the author of the award-winning Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Making of Modern African American Religion (New York University Press, 2014). The book was the 2015 recipient of the Frank S. and Elizabeth Brewer Prize for outstanding scholarship in religious history by a first time author by the American Society of Church History (ASCH). In support of his research, Martin has received a number of nationally recognized fellowships, including the National Endowment for the Humanities, The American Council of Learned Societies, The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, the Louisville Institute for the Study of American Religion, and the Forum for Theological Exploration. His commentary and writing have been featured in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, as well as CNN He is currently writing a book on the relationship between religion, the FBI, and national security in American history. The book will be published by Princeton University Press.

Presenter: Joseph R. Stuart, University of Utah
Joseph Stuart is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at the University of Utah and holds an MA in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia. His dissertation examines the relationship of race, religion, and masculinity among groups that opposed integration and interracial cooperation in Black freedom movements. His peer-reviewed work has appeared in Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture and he has won awards from the University of Virginia Graduate School, the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, the University of Utah History Department, and the Utah Humanities Council.

Presenter: Angela Tarango, Trinity University
Angela Tarango is associate professor of religion at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX where she teaches courses in American religions, focusing on Native American and Latino religions. Her first book Choosing the Jesus Way: American Indian Pentecostals and the Fight for the Indigenous Principle (UNC 2014) explored the history of Native American clergy and leadership within the Assemblies of God. Her current project is an ethnohistorical study of San Antonio's historic La Trinidad United Methodist Church, focusing on Mexican-American Methodism in the borderlands of Texas and Mexico and how Protestant Tejanos used religious practice as an entry into political and social activism.