February marks Black History Month, an event that has taken on special meaning in recent years as white Christian Nationalists and others are attempting to water down or remove entirely any discussion of our nation’s troubled history of systemic racism from public schools.
Despite the country’s legacy of racism, Black leaders have made significant contributions to our country’s understanding of religious freedom. This is even more remarkable when we remember that when the U.S. Constitution was written, the rights described in it applied only to white men.
Black Americans had to fight for all their rights, including religious freedom. It’s important to remember some important figures who helped secure religious freedom for everyone:
Richard Allen: Abolitionist and civil rights leader Richard Allen in 1794 founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first independent Black denomination in the United States, in Philadelphia.
Allen was born enslaved, and while spirituality and religion were often a refuge for enslaved people, their ability to practice freely was conscribed, especially in the South. After the Civil War, Allen’s denomination gave Black people a safe place to practice their religion.
Sojourner Truth: Born Isabella Baumfree, Sojourner Truth is famously known for using religion and spirituality as a mechanism to preach about the abolition of slavery and women’s rights.
Truth joined an abolitionist-founded Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Northampton, Mass., an organization that was known to preach religious tolerance alongside its social justice fight.
“Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him,” Truth famously said.
Peter Spencer: Inspired by the language in the U.S. Constitution, Peter Spencer sought to extend the religious freedom rights of the First Amendment to African Americans nationwide.
Spencer founded the African Union First Colored Methodist Protestant Church and Connection, which became the first independent Black Christian Church in the country in Wilmington, Del.
This church, still in existence, was widely considered a success and played a big role in the independent Black church movement in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Spencer started 31 other Black churches to expand the accessibility of houses of worship to African Americans. Spencer, born enslaved, is recognized as being the “father of the independent Black church movement.”
Alton Lemon and Ishmael Jaffree: Two unsung Black heroes of church-state separation, Alton Lemon and Ishmael Jaffree, were plaintiffs in a pair of important U.S. Supreme Court cases – Lemon v. Kurtzman and Wallace v. Jaffree.
In 1971’s Lemon, the Supreme Court struck down a Pennsylvania law that diverted taxpayer money to religious schools as unconstitutional. In the ruling, the court devised a three-part standard, the Lemon Test, that was used for decades to determine church-state violations. (Unfortunately, the current ultra-conservative bloc of the Supreme Court has essentially gutted Lemon and no longer relies on the test.)
Jaffree, a former child evangelist, also made a big impact in Wallace v. Jaffree (1985) when he successfully challenged an Alabama law that allowed ostensibly “silent” prayer in public schools organized by teachers.
Both Lemon and Jaffree had a strong history with civil rights activism, a background that undoubtedly inspired them to fight for religious freedom by ensuring that government doesn’t sponsor a specific religion and exclude people of minority religions or no religion.
Ernie Chambers: This outspoken former member of the Nebraska state Senate spent 34 years advocating for church-state separation and other important social justice causes in the state’s unicameral legislature.
Chambers served as the plaintiff in a case that reached the Supreme Court in 1983 when he sued to end Nebraska’s practice of employing a taxpayer-funded chaplain to lead prayers before the Senate’s sessions. Although he lost the case, Chambers’ valiant battle highlighted the issue and made the question of the appropriateness of “civil religion” in a multi-faith, multi-philosophy society part of the public debate.
Chambers had to leave the legislature in 2020 due to term limits. He leaves behind a distinguished career of fighting for what’s right.
This highlights just a few prominent Black leaders who aided the cause of religious freedom and church-state separation over the years. There are many others, and we salute them all during Black History Month.
Editor’s Note: This post is based in part on research and writing done by Rokia Hassanein, former communications associate at Americans United. Photo of Sojourner Truth statue in Florence, Mass., is by Lynne Graves via Creative Commons.