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episode seven

civil rights: Myths and realities

The Civil Rights Movement produced significant changes in the United States. For many people, it stands as one of the great moral and political achievements in the country’s history. Yet, over the years, myths have built up around the Civil Rights Movement, myths that make the Civil Rights Movement seem more celebrated and less contested than it was. These myths have made it easier to believe that most Americans supported the movement (or would have, had they been alive) and that Christianity underwrote it. In this episode, we explore the myths and realities of the Civil Rights Movement in the hopes that, by knowing the realities, we will not take comfort in incomplete myths but can wrestle with the challenges presented by a truer, but more complicated, history.

Key Questions:

  1. What are the persistent myths around the Civil Rights Movement?
  2. What do the realities around the Civil Rights Movement tell us about our country and about Christianity’s relationship to racial justice?

Reflection Questions:

  1. What, in this episode, most surprised or challenged you?
  2. In this video, Sarah identifies several myths related to the Civil Rights Movement. Were any of these myths familiar to you? Why do you think these myths persist?
  3. One of the themes in this video is that while many white Christians conceded that forced segregation was probably wrong, they were uncomfortable with the tactics the Civil Rights Movement used to end it and, often, with legislation that addressed it. Did that surprise you? Do you see any contemporary parallels?
  4. In this video, Sarah describes different responses by Christians to the Civil Rights Movement and to racial justice. Which of the response do you think most clearly aligns with the Bible? Which response do you want to have? If historians 60 years from now were to look at your life, which response would they say that you had?

references and sources

photo Attribution

Primary Sources

“Billy Graham Urges Restraint in Sit-Ins,” New York Times, 18 April 1963 (available online to subscribers at

Graham, Billy. “What Ten Years Have Taught Me,” The Christian Century, 1 February 1960, 186-187.

Ellis, Earle E. “Segregation and the Kingdom of God,” Christianity Today, 18 March 1957, 6-9 (available online to subscribers at

“Fannie Lou Hamer Testifies Before 1964 DNC,”

King, Martin Luther Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail” King Institute,

——–. “Remaining Awake Through A Great Revolution.” King Institute,

“March on Milwaukee,” UWM Libraries,

Secondary Sources

Chappell, David L. A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow. University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. Revised edition. Harvard University Press, 1994.

Marsh, Charles. God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights. Princeton University Press, 1997.

McGreevy, John T. “Racial Justice and the People of God: The Second Vatican Council, the Civil Rights Movement, and American Catholics.” Religion and American Culture 4, no. 2 (1994): 221–54.

Savage, Barbara. Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008.