Every Black History Month we see a million memes, quotes, and images of Black people who have played an important role in shaping the story and lives of black people in America. We have heard about Martin Luther King Jr., Harriett Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Rosa Parks more times than we can count. If we’ve grown up with good black history education which is rare in these yet to be United States of America, then we might know Booker T. Washington or Maya Angelou. We know there is an active attempt to publicly whitewash black history as though the systemic destruction, repression, and marginalization of our history wasn’t enough. As a result it becomes more important than ever to teach and tell Black History.
But in an attempt to reclaim our history, let us not forget the key role faith played in the lives of so many of our black leaders. There is a reason why belief in God and practice of faith were so key in the lives of many (but not all) people we talk about during Black History Month. So let’s lift up the faith of our black heroines and heroes this month as we continue to live out our own faith. Below are just some notable examples of historical moments and key black leaders who were influenced by their faith.
Denmark Vesey was an abolitionist and former slave who planned and organized an armed slave rebellion to free the slaves in Charleston, SC. Charleston was the largest slave trading port in the United States during the early 1800s. He was the slave of a ship captain who won the lottery and paid for his own freedom with his earnings, but was not able to pay for his family’s freedom. As a result he became intent on ending the institution of slavery itself. Vesey was a worshipper and small group teacher at the African Church which became Mother Emmanuel AME Church, and his faith informed his advocacy for abolition.
He was inspired by the Haitian revolution and planned to flee to Haiti with the freed slaves after the rebellion. He inspired other abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, David Walker, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. It is well noted that the abolition of slavery was a result of the work of Christian abolitionists.
The Christianity of Vesey and David Walker after him did not advocate for passive waiting to slavery to end. As he read Isaiah, Amos, and especially Exodus he were convinced that armed rebellion could be used by God to bring freedom to enslaved Africans. He began to preach a radical liberation theology from the Old Testament almost exclusively as he prepared for rebellion. Denmark Vesey resurfaced as a popular figure in recent years in the aftermath of the horrendous shooting at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in 2016.
Fannie Lou Hamer
Fannie Lou Hamer was the founder and vice-chairperson of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which successfully unseated the all-white Mississippi delegation at the Democratic Party’s convention in 1968. This and other efforts earned her the title “First Lady of Civil Rights.”
In 1962, Fannie Lou became involved with the Civil Rights Movement when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee held a meeting in Ruleville, Mississippi. She and 17 others went to the county courthouse and tried to register to vote. Because they were African American, they were given an impossible registration test which they all failed. Fannie Lou’s life became a living hell. She was threatened, shot at, cursed and abused by angry mobs of white men including being beat almost to death by the police and imprisoned in Mississippi in 1963 for registering to vote.
Fannie Lou Hamer often sang spirituals at rallies, protests, and even in jail. Her faith in God is what she felt carried her through those difficult experiences. She quoted the Bible to shame her oppressors, encourage her followers, and hold her ministerial colleagues in the SCLC and SNCC accountable. She was a devout member of William Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, and let her faith permeate everything she did.
Michelle Alexander, JD is a civil rights lawyer and advocate, a legal scholar and the author of the New York Times best seller “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” The book helped to start a national debate about the crisis of mass incarceration in the United States and inspired racial-justice organizing and advocacy efforts nationwide.
Alexander performed extensive research on mass incarceration, racism in law and public policy, and racial justice to write her book published in 2010. She has lectured and taught widely on her work as a professor of law and religion at Stanford University, The Ohio State University, and Union Theological Seminary. The New Jim Crow became a foundational text for many of the reforms being advocate for by various organizations involved in the recent push for criminal justice reform and the movement for black lives.
Alexander was driven by her faith to advocate for justice system reforms, believing that God called her to it and seeing it as her reasonable service. Her faith drives her advocacy for justice for the marginalized, care and compassion for all people, and teaching. She feels as though her work in law and faith are inextricably linked, and that people of faith are poised to serve one of the most important roles in changing the system. She is currently a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York exploring the spiritual and ethical dimensions of the fight against mass incarceration.
When we are in times of transition, it can be easy to fall into fear. Many of us do not like change. We would rather be settled and know the ground we stand on. We like our second year at the new company. Our junior year of school. Year two of our relationship. When our organization or project is fully funded. Many of us thrive when we feel we’re on a firm foundation, and we’re nervous when we are launching into the unknown. Yet many of us find ourselves at a crossroads and long for clarity about how to move forward.
In Matthew 14:22, we read about the disciples in transition as they launched across the Sea of Galilee once again, headed from one miracle with Jesus to another. They had learned that whenever Jesus showed up in a new town, He created a stir. His presence led to crowds ready to run him out of town, plead with him for healing, press to hear him teach, or follow Him in curiosity.
But things felt uncertain on the sea that day. The Sea of Galilee was not an unfamiliar place–some of them were fishermen, and all of them lived near the sea their entire lives. The feelings of difficulty didn’t come with the place, but from the circumstances. The last time they were on the sea together, a storm almost destroyed their ship, but Jesus was there to save them. But this time they were back on the Sea of Galilee, sailing late at night without Jesus. His absence meant that anything could happen. They found their peace in His presence. Without Him, they felt a little more uneasy about everything. They knew where they were going and where they were coming from. But they were in transition without the presence of the Lord.
And then they saw a figure walking across the lake. They became terrified, and their place of transition became a place of fear. A figure out on the water with no boat walking above the waves was not a pleasant sight–it looked like a ghost. They had every reason to be afraid. We can relate to their fear of the unexpected showing up in the midst of the unknown.
Then Jesus called out to them, and they understood that what they were seeing was not a ghost. It was the Lord. In the space between the last and the next, God showed up for them in an unexpected way. Their place of uncertainty became a place of the miraculous.
Similarly, God is able to show up for us in unexpected ways when our circumstances change. It may look like we are alone as we move to new cities, start new jobs, or find new relationships. The water can seem unstable beneath us as it flows without clarity, especially when the night surrounds us. But if we remember that God is with us always and can meet us right where we are, we may find ourselves walking on the water with Jesus on the way to our destinations.
In 2020 at the height of the pandemic there was a national push to support the movement for black lives in the United States of America. After years of challenges, rejection, confrontation and dismissal people from high powered CEOs to rural school teachers wanted to support Black Lives Matter. Combining with the #metoo movement there was a push to talk about the senseless killings of Black women. The country suddenly wanted to remember black women’s lives mattered after Breonna Taylor’s life was taken.
Faitth Brooks was doing antiracist and women’s flourishing work in the aftermath. And after years of reflecting she came to a truth, we need to remember black women now, not only when they have been killed. She tells her story and creates space for other black women to be uplifted in her new book Remember Me Now: A Journey Back to Myself and a Love Letter to Black Women. UrbanFaith sat down with Faitth to talk about her journey, her new book, and her thoughts on how we can join in remembering black women now. More about the book is below, the full interview is above.
When Breonna Taylor was killed, her police report was virtually blank. Feeling as if she was suffocating in the initial silence and lack of public outcry, anti-racism educator and activist Faitth Brooks wondered, “Would the world care about and remember me if I was killed?”In Remember Me Now, Faitth grapples with the answer, charting the story of her activist grandparents and ancestors, as well as chronicling her own journey as the first-generation suburbs kid who becomes an activist and organizer herself. Part manifesto, part love letter to Black women, Remember Me Now shows us how we learn to celebrate the fullness of ourselves—a holy, defiant, and necessary move in a world determined to silence us.
Filled with transporting stories, poems, and letters to sisters of all walks of life, Remember Me Now is a transformational read that calls Black women to be their own activists. It’s a reminder to all that Black women matter, and our lives, voices, and stories are worth everything.
FaitthBrooks is a writer, speaker, social worker, activist, and co-host of theMelanated Faithpodcast. As an activist, she engages with nonprofits to find sustainable solutions to systemic issues, in addition to acting as a strategist and consultant for brands and influencers. Her nonprofit work has included serving as director of programs and innovation for Be the Bridge and as director of women’s empowerment for Legacy Collective. Faitth is passionate about leveraging her speaking and social media platforms to enliven collective liberation centered on the sisterhood of Black women.
It is not often that I go to the movie theater and feel like a movie left my speechless but that is exactly how I felt about Devotion. It is based on a true story and has been the culmination of decades of work by the family and friends of Jesse Brown, a true American hero. There was a national conversation a few years ago about the “Hidden Figures” of American history. As African Americans unfortunately much of our history has gone untold, and some of it has been erased by racism, fear, and cultural amnesia. The story of Jesse Brown, one of the first black Naval Aviators to serve in an integrated unit, is a piece of history that must be remembered. It is an honor to Jesse’s daughter and grandchildren who are still alive that their grandfather’s story can finally be told. We are rooting for everybody black, and as we learn his story we help to remember more of our own history.
Jesse served during the Korean War, a war that is not often highlighted on the big screen. It is called America’s forgotten war because it was not the heroic story of good triumphing over evil from World War II and it is overshadowed by Vietnam during the Cold War in its tragedy and impact on American consciousness. But it was the first war where young Americans who were inspired by WWII joined the ranks of the military in order to fight for their country and were not drafted. Jesse Brown was like many African Americans in his era in that he was motivated not simply by patriotism, but an opportunity to help his family advance in a rapidly changing society. He saw himself not as an incredible black man, but as an incredible man. His wife and daughter were the center of his world and his purpose was to fly with the best pilots in the nation.
As we watch the impeccable talent of Jonathan Majors bring Jesse Brown to life we cannot help but to see his devotion. He was a man of faith, a man of family, and a man of fortitude. He demanded respect but rarely opened himself to trust people outside of his home. A lifetime of facing overt and structural racism had taught him to test before he trusted. A new and accomplished member of his unit Tom Hudner played by Glen Powell attempts to build a friendship across the cultural divide.
There is a special bond between team members that go through battles together, and it builds a devotion to one another and to the cause they fight for. This movie explores the depths of that passion in a profound way. But the reason why you should really see this movie is because the story of Jesse Brown needs to be told. We hear about how African Americans have to work twice as had to get half as far, Jesse Brown lived it in our military. We remember stories of American heroism trying to serve our country and protect their fellow soldiers. We rarely hear about black men in those positions. There have been countless successful war movies. This one is for our community with all of the nuance and authenticity that is true to our struggle to be part of the military let alone thrive in it. How can we honor the people in uniform for a country that has long neglected the rights and humanity of black people? Hundreds of our ancestors wore those uniforms and the story of the American struggle for freedom has been the story of the African American struggle for freedom since America’s first war. All Americans need to hear that story and be reminded of the struggle and the triumphs. We need to tell Jesse Brown’s story the same way we tell the stories of Pearl Harbor, Letters from Iwo Jima, Dunkirk, and all of the other films that share tragedies and triumphs of our veterans.
I left the theater in tears. I was moved. I could not believe I had never heard about Jesse Brown’s story, and had rarely heard about the Korean War in all of the history classes I had taken. I feel myself particularly acquainted with African American history having attended the illustrious Howard University and taken several African American history courses. I could not shake the sadness, frustration, and inspiration I felt because I had never heard the name Jesse Brown as one of the “First Black” in the long list of first blacks. We have to know and share our history. We have to share our devotion to our heritage. You have to see this movie, so that this piece of history, our history, is never forgotten again.
Cece Winans is one of the most celebrated Gospel music artists of all time. She has won fifteen Grammys in addition to Dove Awards, Stellar Awards, and many others. As she surpasses the achievements of some of the great artists and exemplars of the faith she looks up to such as Andre Crouch and continues to push her contemporaries and fellow Detroit natives the Clark Sisters, you would think her most important legacy would be music. However for CeCe Winans, the greatest legacy any believer can have is passing on their faith to the next generation. CeCe Winans explores her journey of lifelong faith and her pursuit pass it on to the next generation in her new book Believe For It.
CeCe Winans had an upbringing that most people could not imagine. She was raised in a home with ten siblings who formed multiple musical groups with faith in Jesus Christ at the center of their lives. She was raised in the Church of God in Christ, and like many of her contemporaries brought up in a strict but loving Christian home. She highlights that it was a very intentional decision by her parents to create a home filled with love and faith after neither of them had grown up that way. CeCe contends that it is the intentionality alongside the handwork of raising children to be strong believers that can make a difference for young believers today.
In her book she does not simply tell stories of singing and success. She provides practical principles that she is applying in her own home and church today to ensure her faith in Christ is passed down. Each chapter is broken into easily digestible principles and interlaced with testimonies and stories from Winans’ life. True to her Sunday School roots she ties everything back to scripture as she talks about the importance of starting with faith in the home that translates into the world.
What is fascinating about CeCe Winans sharing this testimony now is that she is the co-pastor of Nashville Life Church that her and her husband started in her living room that is filled with young adults. Churches across the country are struggling today with how to pass on faith to the next generation, how to do multigenerational ministry, and how to preserve the traditions that have preserved us for generations while remaining relevant. And through this book CeCe Winans gives simple and practical keys on how her and her family are doing it. She regularly engages in these topics on her YouTube show Generations, but through the book we get the depth, structure, and narrative that helps us apply the lessons to our lives.
One of the most important keys is relationships. CeCe Winans was shaped by her relationships with her family, church family, and community as a child. Her relationship with Jesus was profoundly shaped by her relationships with other believers. As we embrace new technologies, strategies, and demographics we cannot forget the value of relationships in helping us grow and persevere in faith. I love this book of wisdom. Wisdom is gained from experience and discernment, and as I read it I was able to do both as I consider the impact I have on my own children’s faith. Her legacy for music is also a legacy of sharing faith in God. There are many more keys CeCe shares and her voice through this book is wisdom the Church needs today as we share our faith with the next generation. You can find the book everywhere books are sold this week and check out her latest award winning music video below!