By Jim McCarville
W.E.B. DuBois, the eminent sociologist, may be the most influential African-American political leader in the first half of the 20th century, but his contribution to theology is often overlooked. His most famous work The Souls of Black Folks was, by his own account, written to “lift a veil” that prevented whites from seeing how Blacks really are.
Gary Dorrien, a professor of Religion at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary, is dedicated to reclaiming the gift that DuBois and the Black Social Gospel gave to all Christianity, especially through his disciple, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., two generations later. Dorrien’s book, The New Abolition: W.E.B. DuBois and the Black Social Gospel, won the Grawemeyer Award in 2017.
The Social Gospel is generally considered a movement that came out of 19th century white Protestantism. Simply stated, it sets out that the salvation anticipated for the next world is closely tied to addressing the social conditions of this life. As Walter Rauschenbusch, a Social Gospel pioneer put it, “Whoever uncouples the religious and the social life has not understood Jesus. Whoever sets any bounds for the reconstructive power of religious life over the social relations and institutions of men to that extent denies the faith of the Master”.
This movement is credited, at least in part, with the creation of many private and public institutions addressing both the effects and the causes of the dire poverty of that century. Its accomplishments included the creation of settlement housing, public education, the YMCA and even abolition. Much later it would be in the vanguard in fighting the abusive work practices, political and financial privileges of the Gilded Age and eventually leading to Roosevelt’s New Deal in America and the national health systems of Canada and the United Kingdom.
After the Civil War, the Social Gospel “champions,” generally minorities in their own denominations, embraced Booker T. Washington, and maybe Ida B. Wells’ campaign against lynching, but showed little interest in daily conditions of the newly “freed” African Americans. Most leaders of the Black Social Gospel were distinctly held at a distance by those of the white church.
According to Dorrien, Black Post-Reconstruction leaders divided into four groups. The largest, associated with Booker T. Washington, preached inclusion by developing self-reliance within the Jim Crow system, while trying to dismantle the system through individual achievements. The second, the African nationalists, fought for their own nation or, at least, their own civilization within a hopelessly hostile white culture. The third embraced the concepts of social justice in modern theology and vigorous protest. The fourth tried to mediate among all of them.
Washington had proposed slow progress through trade school education. He was a giant, dominating for a time Black newspapers, Black Universities and Black-related Philanthropy. He courageously founded Tuskegee Institute deep in the heart of Klu Klux Klan territory.
DuBois took issue with Washington’s approach for sacrificing human dignity at the expense of economic success. While traces of all four arguments may still be found today in most liberation struggles, DuBois’ prestige today has far surpassed that of Washington among Black Lives Matter.
According to Dorrien, DuBois’ real contribution came in changing the conversation, embracing both his African and American dualities, taking the vocabulary of a “new abolition” and uniting the factions behind him. He cut deals with white liberals, facilitating both the Niagara Movement and the formation of the NAACP. He defined “the color-line” as the problem of the 20th century. (and, as it turns out, of the 21st century as well).
DuBois, like so many spiritually-inspired but institutionally-challenged religious people today, moved in and out of the church. He was an outspoken critic of the many Black church leaders and an orthodoxy which “stunted souls.” Still, he rooted his message deeply in the Prophets of the Jewish Bible and in the message of Jesus in the Christian Bible, willing to forgo personal privilege for the common good.
DuBois’ greatest influence, however, might have been on the theological impact he had on Martin Luther King, Jr. two generations later. King, like his father and grandfather before him, drew heavily from both Rauschenbusch and DuBois. Like DuBois, King criticized the churches that separated daily secular realities from spiritual needs, or that were apathetic to the institutions that shaped our social mores and conditions. They both refused to be denigrated, oppressed or excluded, and they kept alive the hope to overcome white supremacy.
King broadened the definition of the problem of the century to encompass not only racism, but also its inter-relationships with militarism and poverty. By using the practical theology of DuBois, even against brutal odds, King assembled an unsurpassed ecumenical alliance of whites and Blacks under black leadership, inspiring the greatest liberation theology movement ever seen in America. The scene of the march, from the movie “Selma,” prominently uniting Protestant, Jewish, Orthodox and Catholic leaders, all in the front line, is worthy of an icon.
The arc of Justice bends slowly. No one suggests that the problems of the color-line have been solved. But by “lifting the veil,” DuBois and, two generations later, King, may have helped America begin to face up to one of its greatest theological challenges, simply addressing the dignity of man.
Jim McCarville is a member of the TMC Board and he will be teaching a course on “The Social Gospel and the Post-Modern World” at both Pitt’s and CMU’s Osher Programs in July.