Remembering Important African-American Figures Who Advocated For Religious Freedom

February marks Black History Month, and our nation’s troubled history of race relations and struggles with racism often overlooks the significant accomplishments that people of color have made to advance our country and society.

Those accomplishments include fighting for religious freedom. When the U.S. Constitution was written, the rights prescribed applied to white men, while African-Americans, women and other marginalized groups later had to fight to amend the constitution for explicit inclusion.

Throughout American history, religious zealots have often used faith as an excuse to discriminate against African-Americans. Others interpreted the Bible in ways that attempted to justify slavery and segregation and the denial of basic civil rights.

White supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and others have committed terrorist attacks targeting black churches for years and continue to do so. Needless to say, the fight for African-Americans’ right to worship (or not worship) freely and safely continues to present challenges.   

So for Black History Month, we are remembering some important African-American figures who played a big role in advocating for and promoting true religious freedom:

Richard Allen: In 1794, abolitionist and civil rights leader Richard Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first independent black denomination in the United States, in Philadelphia.  

More importantly, however, was the denomination’s significance at the time to the religious freedom rights of African-Americans.

Allen was born a slave, and while spirituality and religion were often a refuge for enslaved people, Allen’s denomination protected, supported and gave slaves and African-Americans a safe place to practice their religion freely.  

His legacy to fight for the rights of African-Americans to practice their faith in the same way that whites did lives on today, as his church is now a worldwide denomination.

Sojourner Truth: Sojourner Truth, who was born as Isabella Baumfree and changed her name when she became a Methodist, and her life experience is an excellent example of how religion can be used as a means of activism and not as an excuse to discriminate.

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.

Truth’s 1851 “Ain't I a Woman? speech at the Ohio Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, famously attacked the idea that religion should be used to justify women’s oppression.

“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. The movement revolutionized the inclusion of race within religion during this time period. 

Afterward, Spencer started 31 other black churches to expand the accessibility of houses of worship to African-Americans. Spencer, born a slave, is recognized as being the “father of the independent black church movement.” 

Martin Luther King Jr.: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is widely considered the greatest religious figure within the American civil rights movement. King, a Baptist preacher from Atlanta, often used spirituality to advocate and preach that all people were created equally.

He left behind a legacy of what it means to support true religious freedom in a society – one where people can worship freely or not worship at all – while not using faith as an excuse to discriminate against others because of the color of their skin, their gender, etc.

Although King is best known for battling white supremacists and segregationists, he also stood up for the rights of women. Notably, he advocated for women’s access to birth control at a time when many religious groups were trying to restrict it.

King also emphasized the importance of church-state separation. In a January 1965 interview, King told Playboy magazine that the Supreme Court’s decisions to strike down government-sponsored prayer in public schools were “correct.”

“In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken, and by whom? Legally, constitutionally or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right,” King said of the decisions.

Malcolm X: Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little in Omaha, is often included with civil rights legends such as King.

When Little converted to Islam, he began using a Muslim name El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. (“Haijj” refers to the pilgrimage to Mecca and Madinah that Muslims are religiously required to make at least once in their lifetime. His name was a tribute to his pilgrimage in 1964.)

Malcolm X often said that religion should not restrict the freedom of others. He once remarked, “I believe in a religion that believes in freedom.”

Malcolm X was not only one of the most important Muslim figures in American history, he was also a prominent supporter of church-state separation.

“Islam is my religion, but I believe my religion is my personal business. It governs my personal life, my personal morals. And my religious philosophy is personal between me and the God in whom I believe; just as the religious philosophy of these others is between them and the God in whom they believe,” he said in an April 1964 speech in Detroit. “And this is best this way.”

Alton Lemon & Ishmael Jaffree: Two unsung African-American heroes of church-state separation are civil rights activists Alton Lemon and Ishmael Jaffree. Lemon and Jaffree were plaintiffs in two important U.S. Supreme Court cases – Lemon v. Kurtzman and Wallace v. Jaffree.

In 1971’s Lemon v. Kurtzman, Lemon argued that a Pennsylvania law that diverted taxpayer money to sectarian schools for various programs was unconstitutional. The ruling set a precedent for future government funding toward religious schools and spawned the famous “Lemon Test” that is still used to decide church-state cases today.

Jaffree, an ex-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. While fighting for racial equality, they fought for religious equality by ensuring that government doesn’t sponsor a specific religion and exclude people of minority religions or no religions.

This highlights just a few prominent African-Americans 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.