Historian researches unique aspect of civil rights movement
Pick two words with the potential to be highly flammable when placed together, and you have the primary research topic for the director of UM’s African-American Studies Program. Tobin Miller Shearer studies the history of race and religion. He’s particularly focused on where the two ignite to create positive change.
Perhaps the most provocative subject is his latest line of research – public prayer as an agent of progress during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.
“My contention is that prayer was the most potent religious resource activists used to create crisis in their civil rights’ actions,” Shearer says. “Without prayer-invoked tension, the U.S. may not have seen major breakthroughs such as passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.”
So far, his research delivers plenty of evidence to support his theory.
Shearer, who sports a dapper beard, round glasses and the lean build of a runner, is steeped in the history of the civil rights movement. Like all historians, he delights in reading voluminous books and sorting through mounds of articles, first- and second-person accounts, and video footage. He can recite dialogues from memory and vividly conveys riveting dramas such as this one:
Step back to the year 1965. Martin Luther King Jr. sent his friend and fellow civil rights leader C.T. Vivian to the racist stronghold of Selma, Ala. The situation looked ominous. Despite a judge’s injunction to prevent disturbance of voter registration, the orders were ignored.
In a show of solidarity, a large group of African-Americans gathered on the steps of the county courthouse, where they planned to register to vote. At the top of the steps blocking their way stood the heavyset Sheriff Jim Clark, notorious for his vicious temper and use of Ku Klux Klan members as irregular deputies.
Vivian, at the head of the crowd, walked up the steps to face Clark in a classic standoff. What happened next altered the tenor of the scene. Vivian turned to the crowd behind him and led them in prayer, with phrases such as these, as Shearer recalls:
“Shall we stand in prayer [before] … this sheriff breaking Judge Thomas’ order? We ask, O Lord, your blessings upon us and your safekeeping of us as we go into jails that have misused us, as we go into jails where men have been beaten, where the waters have been placed upon floors, where there has been no heat. Keep us, Lord, as we go, keep us from illness, keep us from the brutality of this official.”
In a famous news photo, Clark holds up his watch to Vivian with a glare and clear meaning – your time is up. The prayers continued until the protesters calmly walked inside and were arrested.
The next week, Vivian returned to the courthouse steps again in a repeat confrontation. As before, news photographers and TV stations gathered. The mood was tense.
This time, Clark allowed no time for prayer. He struck Vivian in the face so hard he broke his hand. Cameras clicked and video cameras whirred. Within hours the nation, including President Lyndon B. Johnson, watched the atrocity on the news. Shearer believes that Vivian’s forceful prayer earlier had instigated Clark’s rage.
The violence worsened on March 7, a day infamously known as Bloody Sunday, when Sheriff Clark ordered blue-helmeted police to bludgeon a crowd of civil rights marchers who had just finished praying. By the end of summer, the president signed the Voting Rights Act.
“How does change happen?” asks Shearer. “That’s the larger question I’m working on.”
Shearer’s passion for the subject comes from many years in the trenches working to end racism and his own religious background as a Mennonite, a denomination known as one of the peace churches, along with the Church of the Brethren and the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).
Shearer worked for the Mennonite Central Committee in New Orleans for six years, assisting the families of homicide victims and administering other social service projects. He co-founded a national anti-racism training committee of the Mennonites called Damascus Road in 1995. In Shearer’s nine-year tenure there, he led more than 450 workshops and seminars. The trainings continue today.
“I often lectured on college campuses and came to realize that’s where I wanted to be,” he says. After earning a doctorate at Northwestern University in history and religious studies, UM’s history department hired him for his first professorship four years ago.
Shearer’s extensive background with Mennonites led to the subject of his other main research area, where progress to end racism took place in the intimacy of homes. He’s completing a book examining the role of African-American children in changing their hosts’ perceptions of race as a result of spending one to two weeks living with white families. The book spans
the era from the 1940s through the 1970s of the still ongoing Fresh Air rural hosting programs.
His new research endeavor on public prayer in the civil rights era is one more step in Shearer’s quest to understand the nature of societal change.
A leading social change theorist, James Davison Hunter, argues that long-term social change comes from the leaders and the elites at the top of the movement. But Shearer’s findings suggest the opposite – that social change in the civil rights era came from the grassroots.
He deliberately has cast his net wide to look at lesser-known activists and to prayer events without specific leaders, such as “kneel-ins” within segregated churches.
He describes another spontaneous use of prayer with powerful effect in a small rural town in the South, where people knew everyone by name. One night at the close of service at a segregated African-American church, the congregation headed outside to find themselves encircled by the Ku Klux Klan. Their reaction was to pray for them out loud and by name. The KKK local residents were shamed into slinking away into the dark.
What is this crisis that prayer triggers? Shearer explains that the crisis often becomes a moral one for those about to harm the people who are praying.
“We recognize someone praying instantly,” he says. The actions of kneeling, clasping two hands together or bowing of a head are almost universally honored. Prayer is a holy stance. Violating praying people is likewise almost universally condemned.
Did the leaders of the Bloody Sunday peaceful protests and other actions plan to use prayer to arouse public outrage? Shearer hasn’t found proof of prayer as a thought-out strategy.
“Those leaders who prayed were very astute and acted with clear intention in public, but prayer to them was also as natural as breathing,” he says.
Take Fannie Lou Hamer, a civil rights activist who suffered greatly in her courageous path. She grew up and worked on a Montgomery, Miss., plantation and as a young adult was sterilized without her knowledge. When Hamer attempted to register to vote she was fired from her job on the plantation. She turned to organizing registration drives. In 1964, Hamer was beaten almost to death in a Mississippi jail. Her public orations were known for her spontaneously breaking into song, belting out “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and other religious hymns that also served as change-creating public prayer.
Not all prayers have a crisis-inducing impact, Shearer points out. Public prayer in the civil rights movement appeared in four ways, with only the fourth playing a definitive role.
The first is mediated prayer, where an object or physical substance is used to exercise the experience of the divine, he explains, such as rosaries or Buddhist prayer flags. The second is conversant prayer, when a leader has a direct line to a deity. (Televangelists are good examples.) The third is scripted prayer, when a group recites a written prayer.
The fourth is performative prayer that takes place in front of an audience and refers to events and people in the moment. Throughout are stock phrases serving as cues that a prayer has begun, such as “Dear Lord” or “Our Heavenly Father.”
“Performative prayer in civil rights activism precipitated a crisis every time,” says Shearer. “I often ask my students this question: Because someone uses prayer strategically, does it make prayer less religious?”
Shearer encourages wide-ranging discussions that tackle the nature of religion itself.
“At a Griz game, you see fans wearing special robes and head attire, drinking ritual beverages, eating ritual foods and chanting together. Why isn’t that a religion?” he quips.
Religion differs, he says, because it involves focused engagement with a suprahuman force and imagining of an ultimate horizon. While Griz fans may appeal to the divine for the game’s outcome, they do not claim that the sport is the ultimate purveyor of meaning.
Shearer believes that a key to achieving a more peaceful and just world lies in understanding how religion and race inform each other.
“Race and religion can be extremely volatile,” he says, “but in the civil rights era they came together to bring about change.”
— By Deborah Richie
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Historian researches unique aspect of civil rights movement