A Philip Randolph, a labour organizer who originated the idea of the 1963 March on Washington. *Creative Commons photo
A Philip Randolph, a labour organizer who originated the idea of the 1963 March on Washington. *Creative Commons photo

FRIDAY, FEB. 24: Think of the Civil Rights Movement and chances are the image that comes to mind is of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, leading the 1963 March on Washington.

But few people think of A Philip Randolph, a labour organizer who originated the idea of the march and who was at King’s side as he made his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.

Why is King, a Christian, remembered by so many and Randolph, an atheist, by so few?

It’s a question many African-American nontheists — atheists, humanists and skeptics — are asking this Black History Month, with some scholars and activists calling for a reexamination of the contributions of nontheists of colour to the Civil Rights Movement and beyond.

“So often you hear about religious people involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and as well you should, but there were also humanists,” said Norm R Allen Jr of the Institute for Science and Human Values.

“No one is discussing how their beliefs impacted their activism or intellectualism. People forget we are a diverse community. We are not monolithic.”

Mr Allen has promoted recognition for African-American nonbelievers since he founded the group African Americans for Humanism in 1989.

This year, more than 15 local AAH chapters are expected to highlight Randolph and about a dozen others as part of a Day of Solidarity for Black Nonbelievers this Sunday.

The hope, Mr Allen said, is that highlighting the contributions of African-American humanists — and humanists in general — both in the Civil Rights Movement and beyond, will encourage acceptance of nonbelievers, a group that polls consistently rank as the least liked in the US.

“So often people look at atheists as if they have horns on their heads,” Mr Allen said.

“In order to correct that, it would be important to correct the historical record and show that African-American humanists have been involved in numerous instances in the Civil Rights Movement and before.”

AAH is also promoting black humanists in a billboard campaign in several cities. Each one pairs a local black nontheist with a black nonbeliever from the past. ‘Doubts about religion?,’ the billboard reads. ‘You’re one of many.’

A billboard in Los Angeles pairs Sikivu Hutchinson, a humanist activist based in Los Angeles, with Zora Neale Hurston, a folklorist of African-American culture who wrote of being an unbeliever in childhood.

Ms Hutchinson, author of the forthcoming Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels, links blacks’ religiosity with social ills such as poverty, joblessness and inequality.

“To become politically visible as a constituency, it is critical for black nonbelievers to say we have this parallel position within the Civil Rights struggle,” she said.

A strain of unbelief runs across African-American history, said Anthony Pinn, a Rice University professor. He points to figures like Hubert Henry Harrison, an early 20th-century activist who equated religion with slavery, and WEB DuBois, founder of the NAACP, who was often critical of black churches.

“Lorraine Hansberry, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes — they were all critical of belief in God,” said Dr Pinn.

“They provided a foundation for nontheistic participation in social struggle.”

But they are often ignored in the narrative of American history, sacrificed to the myth that the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement were those of religious people.

Add in that black nonbelievers are a double minority and it becomes even more difficult to discuss the atheism of heroes of black history. “This is a country that loves the rhetoric of the belief in God,” Dr Pinn said.

“You can be socially ostracized and lose all sorts of connections by voicing one’s disbelief.

“If it raises these sorts of questions now, what were the consequences of doing it during the mid-20th century when everything about black life in the US was in question?”

Juan Floyd-Thomas, a religious historian and professor at Vanderbilt University, said the view of the Civil Rights Movement as an extension of American Christianity was “a mythology”.

“One of the things that can be gained from shining a bright light on the contributions of nontheists to the broad sweep of the Civil Rights Movement would have to be integrity,” he said.

“These people had a moral core and that’s something that is sorely needed, whether you are a theist or a nontheist.”

This will remember African-American atheists such as:

James Baldwin (1924-1987), poet, playwright, civil rights activist

Once a Pentecostal preacher, Baldwin’s 1963 book, The Fire Next Time, describes how “being in the pulpit was like being in the theatre; I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion worked”. Baldwin also wrote: “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of him.”

WEB DuBois (1868-1963), co-founder of the NAACP

Columbia University professor Manning Marable wrote that DuBois’ 1903 work, The Souls of Black Folk, “helped to create the intellectual argument for the black freedom struggle in the 20th century”. DuBois criticized the black church for being too slow to promote racial equality.

Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965), playwright and journalist

Hansberry’s partly autobiographical play A Raisin in the Sun, shocked Broadway audiences when a black character declared, “God is just one idea I don’t accept... It’s just that I get so tired of him getting credit for all the things the human race achieves through its own stubborn effort. There simply is no God! There is only man, and it’s he who makes miracles!”

Hubert Henry Harrison (1883-1927), activist, educator, writer

Harrison promoted positive racial consciousness among African-Americans and influenced A Philip Randolph and Marcus Garvey. Harrison proudly declared his atheism and wrote, “Show me a population that is deeply religious and I will show you a servile population, content with whips and chains,... content to eat the bread of sorrow and drink the waters of affliction.”

A Philip Randolph (1889-1979), labour organizer

Randolph was the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black union. He helped convince President Franklin Roosevelt to desegregate military production factories during World War II, and organized the 1963 March on Washington with the Rev Martin Luther King Jr. In 1973, Randolph signed the Humanist Manifesto II, a public declaration of Humanist principles.

Carter G Woodson (1875-1950), journalist and historian

 In 1926, Woodson proposed ‘Negro History Week’, which evolved into Black History Month. In 1933, he wrote in The Mis-Education of the Negro that “the ritualistic churches into which these Negroes have gone do not touch the masses, and they show no promising future for racial development.”

Richard Wright (1908-1960), novelist and author

In his memoir Black Boy, Wright wrote, “Before I had been made to go to church, I had given God’s existence a sort of tacit assent, but after having seen his creatures serve him at first hand, I had had my doubts.”