This Worldwide Struggle: Religion and the International Roots of the Civil Rights Movement
Reviewed by Isaac Barnes May
By Sarah Azaransky. Oxford University Press, 2017. 296 pages. $34.95/hardcover; $23.99/eBook.
The story of the Civil Rights Movement is almost always told as a U.S. drama, focused on leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. or key events like the Montgomery bus boycott. In This Worldwide Struggle, Sarah Azaransky, a professor of social ethics at Union Theological Seminary, gives the movement a much broader global context. Azaransky charts how the worldview of many American Black Christian intellectuals engaged in the Black freedom struggle—figures like Pauli Murray, Benjamin Mays, Howard Thurman, and Bayard Rustin— drew on their experiences with international activist networks, particularly engaging with decolonization efforts in Ghana, Nigeria, and India. Covering the time between 1935 and 1959, the book addresses a period when the beliefs and techniques of the Civil Rights Movement were being developed.
Despite the fact that This Worldwide Struggle is published by an academic press and aimed at a scholarly audience, the book is remarkably accessible, with a clear narrative and vivid “characters.” While it would be helpful for potential readers to have some prior understanding of whom the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were, the book could profitably be read by a broad audience. It helps that this is not a disinterested work: Azaransky makes clear that the lives of these activists provide us with lessons about the importance of international engagement and understanding.
It is certainly clear that it would be parochial to see the Civil Rights Movement as somehow only connected with the United States. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. took a trip to Ghana immediately after Kwame Nkrumah led the nation to independence from British colonial rule; this exposure is not an ancillary detail to King’s career. Instead, it is critical to understand that debates raised about tactics were of great interest to Americans. Could the nonviolent tactics used to secure Ghana’s independence be equally effective against state power elsewhere?
Azaransky, however, also shows that American Black intellectuals did not think of their struggles in isolation. Ghana and India were not just experimental testing grounds for the methods of the Civil Rights Movement. As the title This Worldwide Struggle indicates, they did not see their efforts for justice as neatly stopping at America’s borders.
While this is not a book focused on Quakerism, it nevertheless has considerable content that would be of special interest to Quaker audiences. Howard Thurman, whose attempts to reconcile his own religion with American Christianity’s connections with racism, was a protégé of Quaker philosopher Rufus Jones. Another chapter focuses on William Stuart Nelson’s time working in India for American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) to support Indian independence. Nelson’s meeting with Gandhi while there deeply shaped his own emerging understanding of the application of nonviolent Christianity to the struggle for the rights of African Americans, and helped lead to the spread of Gandhian ideas within the Civil Rights Movement.
The fifth chapter analyzes Bayard Rustin as a Quaker theological thinker, arguing that his approach to nonviolent action and civil disobedience drew heavily from “a Quaker anthropology and understanding of how God exists in the world.” The chapter makes a persuasive case that we need to broaden our notion of what fits into the category of “African American religion” to be able to encompass Rustin’s Quakerism. It concludes with an examination of Rustin’s contribution to Speak Truth to Power, an AFSC pamphlet that was a significant contribution by the Religious Society of Friends in the twentieth century. The coverage of Rustin’s religion here is excellent, though the 1959 end date for the book’s narrative means that Azaransky only elliptically alludes to the fact that Rustin later in life changed many of these views and was associated with the neoconservative movement.
This book would make a valuable addition to a personal or meetinghouse library. It manages both to be readable and to do an impressive job of offering a new understanding of a key moment in American history, and lifts up the Black intellectual leaders as inspiring heroes.