Black Women’s Long Fight for Justice: A Review of Black Women’s Christian Activism
Black Women’s Christian Activism: Seeking Social Justice in a Northern Suburb by Betty Livingston Adams
New York: NYU Press, April 2018. 240 pages.
$26.00. Paperback. ISBN 9781479814817. For other formats: Link to Publishers’ Website.
How did Jim Crow segregation affect Black women in Northern “liberal” states during the first half of the twentieth century? And how did Black women navigate this Northern world, which was thought to be the Promised Land by the millions of Black people who moved North after the United States abandoned Reconstruction? Black Women’s Christian Activism: Seeking Social Justice in a Northern Suburb addresses this lacuna in scholarship. As Betty Livingston Adams notes, the academy has tended to neglect the years of the twentieth century leading up to World War II, especially the non-elite Black women who lived and resisted during this time. The central argument in this book is “that black women’s Christian activism made a difference over the first half of the twentieth century. Their understanding of the intertwining of race and gender, religion and politics can be found in the bedrock of the civil rights struggle” (11).
Though this book covers a dizzying number of activists, organizations, and social movements, the primary actors are Violet Johnson and the Reverend Florence Spearing Randolph, and the action is centered in Summit, New Jersey. Both of these women significantly contributed to issues of national importance, such as the fight for women’s suffrage, prohibition, the struggle over Jim Crow’s northern movement, and partisan politics—all within or in the shadow of the Black church. Despite their many achievements, they were continually sidelined by organizations and movements that depended on their support. Thus, Johnson spent most of her life as a domestic servant, and Randolph, though she eventually won ordination, was never given a permanent church appointment or much institutional power. Adams shows that time and again White women activists, White and Black churches, and the Republican party relied on support from Black women—but continually failed to stand up for Black women’s interests and be faithful to promises. This duplicity generally came as no surprise to Black women, who Adams shows quickly became seasoned political operatives and were capable of navigating the social, political, and religious morass in the North as adroitly as possible. Rather than always following the instructions given to them by others—primarily White women and Black men who were their ostensible allies—Black women determined their own priorities and political strategies.
A theme running through this research is how the battles of the day played themselves out on the bodies of Black women. White support for policies that aided Northern Black people were often won through inciting fear of the supposed licentiousness of single and working-class Black women. Later, White elites used ostensible health policies to enact Jim Crow style segregation by targeting purportedly diseased Black female bodies. Black women were also only tentatively accepted into war efforts during WWI, for fear that their dark skinned, working-class bodies would corrupt the morality of soldiers and the White women who supported them. For similar reasons Black women were often kept at arm’s length during the fight for suffrage and prohibition. Finally, when Black women organized anti-lynching campaigns, White women typically did not value Black female bodies enough to invest time and energy protecting them, and the Republican party at best paid lip service to ending lynching.
The paradox that Adams navigates is that it is both true that Black women’s Christian activism made a difference in their communities, and that on the eve of WWII—where the book ends—Summit, New Jersey, was more segregated and hostile to Black women than it was prior to WWI when the book began. This increase in segregation and hostility is demonstrated by the fact that, in 1915, Black people were kept from owning space coded as White, whereas by 1939, even renting space demarcated as White was disallowed. Indeed, Adams shows that the Jim Crow segregation of the South migrated North over time, and that by 1939 racial lines were more staunchly and violently protected than ever before, and Black women were viewed as especially suspect.
Despite this devolution in racial justice, Adams clearly shows that Black women’s work and activism did make a difference. Johnson, Randolph, and others created literal and metaphorical space for Black women to survive and thrive, and as much as possible stemmed the tide of racist, sexist, and class-based animus directed at Black women. Additionally, the organizing power and political institutions set up by Black women during this period laid the foundation for later civil rights work during the 50s and 60s. Indeed, the work done by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and others would not have been possible without the work done by these largely forgotten women.
This book is both focused enough to avoid bothersome generalities, yet touches on broad themes of race, class, gender, religion, and political life. Thus, it is of interest to scholars in religious studies, theology, women’s and gender studies, Black studies, political science, and other related fields. Despite the depth of Adam’s work, this book calls for additional engagement with this period, especially in the area of theology. One minor critique that can be made of this work is that it tends to focus on the social and political more than the religious and spiritual. When the religious and spiritual are addressed, they are generally presented as being in service to social or political ends. I do not wish to suggest that the social and political can be divorced from the religious or spiritual, but work remains to be done investigating the religious and spiritual lives of these Northern Christian Black non-elite women and how they viewed these aspects of their lives. For example, were there times when these women took non-advantageous political positions because of their faith? And in what ways did their faith sustain them in the midst of a struggle wherein they were doomed to fail to achieve their social and political goals?
With this book, Adams has given the world a gift, and like the best of gifts it continues giving, in the form of pressing questions to investigate and challenges to accepted history, such that history must be re-written to acknowledge the many contributions these women made to the struggle for freedom and justice.