On Moments, Movements, and Women’s Work

new abolitionMy Response to
Gary Dorrien’s The New Abolition

April 3, 2017

In late summer 2014, the people rose up in Ferguson, Missouri. Michael Brown had been shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson with a brazen callousness that shook the nation. When Brown’s body was left baking in the August sun, black people in Ferguson took to the streets. Their steps were matched nationwide, as walkouts, vigils, marches, and moments-of-silence cascaded from New York to Washington, DC, to Atlanta, from Chicago to Detroit to New Orleans, from Los Angeles to Oakland to Seattle, like the steady falling of dominoes. A sign from France Francois, a Haitian-born/US-raised writer and activist, became one of the most iconic of protest images: “I CANNOT BELIEVE I STILL HAVE TO PROTEST THIS SHIT!!” The hashtag beneath her words refused the now familiar murder roll call: #TooManyToName. At a speaking engagement in December of that year, Mary Frances Berry, the eminent legal historian and former chairperson of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, brandished a sign with the same slogan, “I CANNOT BELIEVE I STILL HAVE TO PROTEST THIS SH*T!!” Days earlier, a grand jury chose not to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown.

I begin with this scene from our own near present to introduce a longstanding debate around social change that is at the heart of Gary Dorrien’s The New Abolition. In the months that separated Francois raising her sign and Berry displaying hers, the nation was embroiled in a debate over whether Ferguson would “be a moment” or “become a movement.” Pundits, organizers, and scholars alike charged respectability against the “be a moment” camp, which tended to depict protesters in Ferguson as disorganized, reckless, even dangerous. They pointed out that a sanitized version of the civil rights movement—stripped of its poor, young, and female leadership, stripped of its vibrantly radical and rebellious Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—undergirded such critiques. Through these civil rights fables, we were made to believe that Ferguson must “be a moment,” because real movements did not look like this. The language “become a movement” hardly offered an alternative to this sanitizing gaze. It smuggled in another series of assumptions about how social changes happens—what I call the “jack-in-the-box approach” to social movement history. In this theory of change, real movements pop upwhen people make a demand, and they go down when that demand is met. Social movements are thereby exceptionalized, and so, too, are the conditions they seek to address. By this logic, we could only ask if Ferguson would “become a movement,” because we were already telling a story of United States history in which there was no continuity of black struggle, much less a need for it.

Dorrien’s The New Abolition is set amid the violent disassemblage of Radical Reconstruction and the institutionalization of Jim Crow modernity. In this masterful work, he gives us a moving and poignant biography of the black social gospel tradition through its foremost leaders, innovators, and critics. With careful attention to theologies, practices, and politics of black Methodists and Baptists, Dorrien excavates a set of figures who were as politically powerful as they were religious. This is no mere narrative exercise. In a methodical and (roughly) chronological account, Dorrien connects the people, places, and things of the long history of black organizing to abolish slavery to the decades-honed work of black organizing for civil rights. In so doing, he refuses a no less pernicious version of the moment vs. movement question, which is too often read onto the lives and work of our civil rights rebel elders. As Dorrien reminds us, “King did not come from nowhere, and neither did the civil rights explosion of the 1950s” (10).

This claim—like the historical evidence that Dorrien marshals to support it—is as historiographical as it is theoretical. On this point, I am reminded of Cedric Robinson’s “An Ending” to Black Marxism, in which he explains that “resurrecting events that have systematically been made to disappear from our intellectual consciousness” serves a vital purpose: “For the realization of new theory we require new history” (307). Dorrien’s own method (and theory) of resurrection is strongly reminiscent of Wallace Best’s study of black religious agency in Great Migration-era Chicago, Passionately Human, No Less Divine. Best positions his text in critical conversation with scholarship that has celebrated black agency in the social, cultural, and political realms, but has preferred to cast black religion as a spiritual force that “just happens” (186–87). By drilling down into the social context of the Great Migration, Best exposes the tremendous breadth of black Southern agency—agency that was boldly and dynamically religious. Against portraits of Southern migrants as at best out of step with city life and at worst swindled by the so-called “Black Gods” of the “sects and cults,” Best spins a tale of the insurgent masses, who together produced a new—and very Christian—sacred order. In The New Abolition, Dorrien sets his sights on the no less secularizing gaze of US historiography. Refusing scholars who have long interpreted religious leadership as declining to the point of insignificance by the end of the nineteenth century, he, too, explodes the landscape of black Christian public intellectuals nationwide, presenting us with a cornucopia of deeply religious and deeply influential leaders nationwide. In so doing, he also helps us to remember the deeply religious leanings of some of the period’s more familiar heroes and heroines, who pressed the issue of social justice as a sacred matter in their organizing at both the community and the denominational levels.

To develop a theory of the black social gospel, Dorrien also has to take the movement leaders (and their contemporaries) to task for their own historiographical prescriptions. From the first pages of The New Abolition, we are presented with an analytical hermeneutic. The very idea of a monolithic “Black Church”—that could first be imagined as an engine for racial uplift (W. E. B. Du Bois), then as an irrelevant repressive force in need of dying (E. Franklin Frazier), then as a resurrected vehicle for social change (C. Eric Lincoln), only to again be pronounced dead (Eddie Glaude)—is itself a black social gospel construction (9). As Dorrien’s text unfolds, we find a neglected Henry McNeal Turner, whose memory was evacuated once bitterness toward Marcus Garvey came to occupy in Du Bois’s own (double-)consciousness (84). Ms. Ida B. Wells-Barnett took matters into her own hands, narrating her life as a Crusade for Justice in an autobiography that still took nearly forty years (and the collective organizing of the feminist and Black Power movements) to make its way into circulation (123). Du Bois did, too, when he presented his searing critique and revision of William Archibald Dunning’s “negro misrule” thesis at the 1909 meeting of the American Historical Association (246–47). The reception was warm, but the impact nil; Du Bois’s 1935 Black Reconstruction has still never been formally reviewed by academic historians. That fact did not bother Nannie H. Burroughs. She minced no words about her contempt for the Du Bois revisionist line on Reconstruction and the “Talented Tenth” it elevated. Centering the labors of poor black people and the women working among them, Burroughs christened her school with a slogan that would today be read as downright Afro-Futurist: “We specialize in the wholly impossible” (419).

The prescriptive historiographical stakes here were so high because of what was on the line. This is the real force of the narrative history that Dorrien gives us. He takes us into the worlds of our not too distant ancestors, and reinflates (reenchants?) them with stunning complexity. The black social gospel was no singular doctrine, just like the Black Church is no monolithic institution. Dorrien sketches four “denominations”: (1) the Booker T. Washington school of accommodation; (2) the back-to-Africa school of black nationalism; (3) the roaring protest school of abolitionist-oriented racial and social justice; and (4) the hybrid reform school of accommodationist-protest and protesting-accommodation (5–7). The full breadth—and no less—of each of these various schools is what birthed Dr. King and the un-sanitized, un-fablized, un-exceptionalized civil rights continuity of the 1950s.

It is precisely because of the sheer magnitude of Dorrien’s resurrection of the black social gospel tradition that I want to press on a critique that he himself raises: this is a predominantly male story. Dorrien works hard to inflect the twists and turns of this story with the work of clubwomen and female leaders of parachurch organizations (as well as the complexities of and divergences among male leaders’ views on women). Nonetheless, he narrates the black social gospel as a Christian organizational history, birthed primarily by male ministers. Women were excluded from Niagara precisely because William Monroe Trotter and others “didn’t want them there” (233). Citing historian Barbara Dianne Savage, Dorrien also reminds us that three scholars—Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, and Benjamin E. Mays—were the most influential architects of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century historiography on black American Christianity. All three were unsettled by holiness worship; all three advocated modernized social justice churches; all three valued women as congregants; and all three insisted that churches needed strong male leadership (29). These four pillars have cast a long shadow on the historiography—one that is no less impactful than that cast by the devaluing of the twentieth-century religious leadership, which animates Dorrien’s own study. But historiographical prescriptions are just that. How might our present moment press us to revisit even these longstanding theories of interpretation?

When our country “exploded” after George Zimmerman’s acquittal and stayed “sprung” after Michael Brown’s murder, black women were on the frontlines. Even the architects of the #BlackLivesMatter refrain were black women: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. Many asked where these women came from, who they were, how they were so organized, how they immediately commanded attention and respect. Slogans like “not your grandfather’s civil rights movement,” while pithy, seemed to confirm that there was a rupture—not that we had been telling the story wrong. To paraphrase Dorrien: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi did not come from nowhere, and neither did the Black Lives Matter explosion of the 2010s.

To conclude, I want to engage the life and work of two black women—Elder Lucy Smith in Great Migration-era Chicago and Callie House in post-Reconstruction Nashville—in order to think about how centering black women’s work (and decentering the prescriptive biases of Du Bois, Woodson, and Mays) may enable us to further complicate the story of the black social gospel and the vision of our own momentous present. I also want to be clear about my intention here. I do not raise these critiques in order to question Dorrien’s thesis that there was a definitive and identifiable black social gospel tradition. In this respect, The New Abolition is as luminous as it is groundbreaking. Rather, I propose these black women’s black social Christian projects as starting points for embarking on what any good history invites: further revision. In so doing, I want to think carefully about what was at stake for the New Abolition bishops and the Baptist pastors who omitted these two figures (and women like them) from the institutional church sources that Dorrien works with so carefully. I am also interested in how these women’s inclusion might press us to ask new and different questions of the black social gospel tradition going forward.

Elder Lucy Smith makes an appearance in the initial pages of Dorrien’s work as an example of a woman who found the freedom to minister once she left the mainline churches of her upbringing. Smith’s choice of the sanctified pulpit over the mainline pews bespeaks a black social gospel conundrum for Dorrien: “Traditional black churches . . . were most like traditional white churches in excluding women from ordained ministry. But these were the churches where the social gospel made its deepest inroads. Meanwhile, the churches that allowed women to preach were not the ones that produced social gospel ministers” (29). However, Elder Lucy Smith is critical to Wallace Best’s thesis that the Great Migration produced a new sacred order that was also a profoundly female order. Under the banner of the All Nations Pentecostal Church, Elder Lucy Smith roared through Chicago—in worship, healing, missions, and the airwaves. Her church exemplified the “do it for ourselves” impulse that Best attributes to many migrants’ production of the houses of worship and mutual aid that they needed. This move was reactive. Dorrien quotes Best when describing the lasting blows that many mainline churches dealt to themselves over their inability to respond to migrants’ insurgent, holy-rolling, self-conscious action (506). But that is hardly the end of the story. Even amid wide-ranging criticism (much of it recorded in the Works Progress Administration archives), Elder Lucy Smith built a massive sanctified movement that crossed race, class, and denominational lines. The middle-class black pastors of Chicago did not shy away from confirming it: “If you want to see my folks (members) on a Sunday night,” one pastor remarked, “go to Elder Lucy Smith’s” (quoted in Best, 177).

Elder Lucy Smith’s life and work signals one critical direction for further research: a reconsideration of the social gospel / Pentecostal divide as holding definitive interpretive weight. Certainly there were holiness churches that were “too heavenly bound to be of any earthly good,” but Wallace Best proposed that at least in Great Migration-era Chicago “a this-worldly focus predominated, even in churches where one would least expect it, because of the temporal demands of the mass movement” (187). What new appreciations for the material demands and theological reflections of black Southern migrants might come into focus if early charismatic churches are examined as vital sites of black social gospel meaning-making?

Which brings me to a second figure: Callie House, a poor Tennessee washerwoman born the first year of the Civil War. As Mary Frances Berry writes in My Face Is Black Is True, Callie House became a field organizer at the turn of the twentieth century, traversing the Southern landscape to build the 500,000-member-strong National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association. In this region-wide grassroots organization, which met in black churches all over the South, formerly enslaved people gathered for collective support and mutual aid. Together, they publicly recounted brutal memories of slavery that had been little eased in the days since emancipation, and they pooled their pennies in membership dues to assist with ex-slave burial costs. On the national stage, these poor freedpeople told a narrative of black victimization that indicted the federal government as an accomplice in their subordination and impoverishment. Stepping first to Congress and then to Federal Court, they demanded pensions for ex-slaves to be paid for with the $68 million collected in cotton taxes between 1862 and 1868. For this work, Callie House was, in Berry’s words, “praised by poor African Americans, ridiculed by the race’s elites, and targeted by high government officials, who feared her influence with the masses, and eventually landed in jail” (6–7).

Callie House was a contemporary of Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Henry McNeal Turner. The members of her Ex-Slave Association went on to populate the ranks of Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), that very “Negro peasantry” that Dorrien quotes Du Bois as looking upon sympathetically: “The movement is yet inchoate and indefinite, but it is tremendously human, piteously sincere and built in the souls of a hardworking, thrifty, independent people, who while long deprived of higher training have nevertheless very few illiterates or criminals” (342). The movement that Du Bois observed was hardly inchoate or indefinite. Its members had already petitioned and sued the federal government in the first ever national case for reparations. Theirs was also deeply religious work. As Callie House wrote in 1899, “My Whole soul and body are for this ex-slave movement and are willing to sacrifice for it.”

I offer this discussion of Callie House to highlight a second direction for further research: an expansion of what counts as the black social gospel agenda for social justice. Dorrien’s focus on the divergent tactics of the new abolition enables him to sketch the skeletal structure of black social Christianity with attention to the very real tensions that were present. Callie House further troubles even some of these tensions. Reparations, as operationalized by the Ex-Slave Association, was a demand that blurred the lines of separatism and integration, of abolition and reform. It did so precisely through a leadership model that privileged collectivity—a collectivity not unlike what Nannie H. Burroughs might have imagined when she implored poor and working black people to “unload the leeches and parasitic leaders,” because “we can take the promised land” (420).

What if we did not allow the lives and work of Elder Lucy Smith and Callie House (and black women like them) to be relegated to the historiographical equivalent of “be a moment”? What if we did not even did not even try to discipline them with the “become a movement” question? What if, instead, we centered these women’s work and the demands of the poor black people they mobilized? What additional black social gospel visions and strategies might then come into focus?

With The New Abolition, Gary Dorrien has given us a method: “King did not come from nowhere.” And, of course, neither did the Black Lives Matter explosion of the 2010s.

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