“What a nun is supposed to be”: Black Power and the National Black Sisters’ Conference
by Venus Bender
In his 1971 speech “On the Relevance of the Church” at the Theological Union in Berkeley, California, the Black Power activist Huey P. Newton referred to the church as an essential institution for building a Black community after both the church and the Black Panther Party had gone through a developmental process of making themselves relevant to the needs of the Black community and rethinking their cooperation with the church, respectively. He acknowledged that “[r]eligion, perhaps, is a thing that man needs at this time because scientists cannot answer all of the questions” (Newton 1972: 64). Although Black Power is often perceived as an antithetical equivalent to the Civil Rights Movement due to its activists’ radicalization, it was more than merely a non-religious movement as it is commonly portrayed in textbooks and films. Notable personalities such as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali denounced Christianity for endorsing a slave mentality, which led them to convert to Islam. Others, such as prominent members of the Black Panther Party Huey Newton, whose father was a Baptist minister, and Stokely Carmichael, whose parents were deeply religious Christians, left the church early on and thus created the notion of ‘Dechristianization’1 within the movement.
Similarly, many other young Black Americans questioned their affiliation with Christianity, which was soon considered a white (-washed) religion. Militance and separatism became critical terms of the movement, and Black pride intensified white people’s aversion to Black Power ideologists. All this ultimately led to the disseminated perception of Black Power being an un-Christian campaign that had its turning point with Martin Luther King’s death in 1968. Despite its complexity, the movement was predominantly portrayed as homogeneous, hypermasculine, and harmful. In fact, it consisted of a variety of contributors, among which there were even “preachers who adopted Black Power’s ethos of self-determination as an organizing tool” (Joseph 2009: 216) and female activists such as Angela Davis and Elaine Brown, who shaped the movement. This essay analyzes how female Catholics especially participated in the Black Power movement and investigates the role of Black religious intellectual thought as an influence on their activism.
Many scholars have widely overlooked Black Christian thinkers and activists affiliated with the Black Power movement whose main objective was to alter their religion and develop a viable new concept for the fight for freedom. Although there has been a plethora of research on Black Power in the last years, only little is known about the “significance of the Black church’s involvement or the broader influence, if any, of African American Christian discourses to movement mobilization” (Pimblott 2017: 5). Black intellectual thought, such as James Cone’s black liberation theology, was among the essential ideas that prompted a new definition of Christianity and the participation in the Black revolution among church members. To Cone, “Christianity is not alien to Black Power; it is Black Power” (Cone 1997: 38). Moreover, the historian Angela Dillard examines the work of the pastor Albert B. Cleage, Jr., who protested racial discrimination in Detroit in the 1960s. His church, the Shrine of the Black Madonna, was where he preached about building a nation within a nation, which soon became the main principle of Black Christian Nationalism.2 While Cleage operated as a leader of his own Black church, many parishioners of the Catholic communion used the inspiration they found in Black Power as an incentive to fight for liberation in their congregation and beyond.
The National Black Sisters’ Conference (NBSC) constitutes a remarkable representation of religious participation in the Black Power movement. The NBSC was an organization founded in 1968 by Sister Martin de Porres Grey. Their initial meeting was held in Pittsburgh to discuss the sisters’ responsibilities to the Black community. In the same year’s October issue, Ebony magazine titled their report on them “An Awakening of Black Nun Power,” which emphasized their seemingly unique religious position in the movement. The organization’s exceptionality was owed to the combination of Black Power fused with Catholicism. In the six-page article, Ebony revealed photographs of the participating nuns, some of whom were carrying large buttons on their uniforms that declared, “I am proud to be black” and “Black is beautiful” in bold capital letters (Ebony 1968: 45).
Not only did the NBSC make use of Black Power rhetoric, but they also represented it from a Catholic viewpoint. According to Ebony, “they completely demolished all stereotyped views of what a nun is supposed to be” (ibid.). These Black women religious exposed their pride most notably by underlining their Blackness. Aside from sporting buttons with compelling slogans that underpinned their principles, some deliberately omitted their headpieces to reveal their natural hair, while some wore traditional African clothes to underscore their cultural heritage. In this manner, the organization became an active and crucial part of the Black Power era. “The rise of Black Power galvanized Black Catholics and provided a new generation with the tools to transform the Church,” the religious scholar Matthew Cressler asserts in his book, Authentically Black and Truly Catholic (2017). Many of them had indeed become noteworthy equivalents to the more prominent radicals of the time (Cressler 2017: 130). NBSC’s first meeting can thus be regarded as a symbolic gathering that empowered Black Catholic women across the United States and as a fundamental constituent of the Black Power history.
The NBSC further supported their community by offering workshops that promoted the attendees’ engagement with their own Blackness, which, regarding pride in identity, was a relevant feature and possible outcome of the Black Power zeitgeist. As their former member M. Shawn Copeland recounts, they supported their community by providing conferences that conveyed the message of the Christian “task of black liberation” (Copeland 1996: 138). For this purpose, they decided to summon women who would partake in their fight for liberation, and their endeavor toward self-determination became an essential requirement for this matter (ibid.). These offers had been of tremendous value to those Black women who served in various predominantly white congregations since these could help them better cope with their identity (143). The organization correspondingly supported Black nuns who had experienced similar, mostly racialized obstacles in a white community (134-135). Thus, they represented a major religious corporation that was no less significant than other secular Black Power activists. The NBSC had up to 350 members, making up one-third of all Black Catholic sisters in general (143).
The Sisters’ convention in Pittsburgh was met with dismay from most white counterparts, primarily due to the program’s exclusion of white participants, yet they disliked any formation of Black nuns that criticized the conservative congregation either way. However, the Second Vatican Council, from the early to mid-1960s, put forward a modernization3 for the Catholic Church through which it tried to adapt to the socio-political developments that inspired Black Catholics to become more engaged in social activism (Copeland 1996: 126). Nevertheless, Sister Martin de Porres Grey reported to Ebony that most of their white peers “didn’t understand the need for such a meeting and were fearful of what it might lead to” (Ebony 1968: 48). Some had perceived it as “divisive” and unnecessary while also being “saddened” by the fact that such a meeting had to occur in the first place (ibid.). Their Black-only approach supplemented the well-known contemporary Black Power practices on separatism and Black pride convictions. The NBSC members were now provided a safe space devoid of white surveillance, where they could communicate their critique and proudly demonstrate their natural hair and wear traditional African clothing or buttons with Black Power slogans. Grey explained that the exclusion of whites was a necessary means to prepare themselves unimpededly before presenting the meeting’s results to the white church (ibid.). The NBSC’s use of separatism, in this case, was thus a strategic move towards communicating Black women’s needs in their communities. Their main goal was to liberate all Black people, which started by helping Black sisters on their way to emancipation through NBSC meetings and workshops (Copeland 143).
Apart from actively promoting Black Power ideologies, Black religious intellectual thought played another critical role in the NBSC’s precept. Grey herself imagined that Black Power paved the way for a “new black religion” (Grey 1970: 26). In The Black Scholar of 1970, she wrote about the necessities and biblical origins of revolutions. With regard to the political status quo, Grey reminded her readers that Jesus was a radical himself who had started a revolution with the same aims of the Black Power activists, namely for the liberation of his people (21). Grey thus saw numerous parallels between the struggle of Black people and the emancipatory narratives of the Bible, which served as convincing arguments for Black Power’s calls for self-determination. She was not alone in doing so: Similar to Grey’s aim to “make the Catholic church more relevant to black people” (25), Albert Cleage redefined Christianity to render it more applicable to the Black church. He ultimately founded Black Christian Nationalism, through which he sought the building of a Black nation and the full dedication to modernizing Christianity and making it more compatible with Black nationalism (Dillard 2003: 153).
Cleage thus preached of a Black Christ whose intent was to liberate Black people from white supremacy. According to Cleage, the white American interpretation of Christianity was false, and the Black Church needed a reformation to make it more relevant to the African American freedom struggle. These theories of renewing religious concepts and devoting them to the revolution further corresponded to theologian and civil rights activist Vincent Harding’s notions that he expressed in his 1968 article “The Religion of Black Power”, in which he insinuated that instead of religion, the Black community would now favor and focus on the emancipatory dogma of Black Power instead (Harding 1968: 14). The origins of such thoughts went a little further back to the Muslim theology that applied an apocalyptic language to describe the “destruction of white America”, which also inspired non-religious Black Power activists (Corbman 2020: 1). Furthermore, the Nation of Islam encouraged Black theologians to endorse the use of Christianity to amplify the revolution and subvert white supremacy (9). This development ultimately led to the question of whether Black Power might be rendered a “new black religion” as Grey formulated in her conclusion (Grey 1970: 26).
Although it remains unclear whether the NBSC would have unequivocally declared themselves Black Power activists, their goals and timing were close to the pulse of the time. Their socio-political and ecclesiastical engagements made an extraordinary contribution to the freedom struggle despite the challenges they faced as Black Catholic women in a white- and male-dominated community. Copeland writes that the organization “understood itself as an agent for the liberation of black people” and it did so by offering workshops, retreats, and other social events for all Black Catholic women (Copeland 1996: 143). The NBSC further launched a consulting agency, the Development of Educational Services in the Growing Nation (DESIGN), which advocated for the advancement of schools and education and for the pedagogical support for teachers (136). Their exceptional quality was characterized by their fierce engagement in ecclesiastical politics despite the long history of Black Catholic women’s “contested presence in the church when most equated whiteness with purity and holiness and blackness with evil and moral debasement” (Williams 2016: 93).
Nevertheless, the NBSC received some support from influential Black religious theologians and priests. Together with Gayraud Wilmore and others, Sister M. Shawn Copeland wrote the Atlanta Statement in 1977 to call for action in the Black church with regard to Black liberation (Copeland 1977: 145). The New York priest Lawrence Lucas referred to the NBSC as “beautiful black women” whom he had the privilege of listening to in discussions on their role in the Black community (Lucas 1970: 197). Lucas had largely criticized that Catholicism and Black Power might not necessarily resonate with each other but argued that he remained a Catholic priest to raise awareness of the church’s racism and eventually tried to change its conditions. However, Sister Martin de Porres Grey left the Catholic church in 1974, which, with her being the head of the organization, had a detrimental effect on the NBSC and eventually led to a thirty percent decline in Black sisters’ membership by 1975 (Williams 2013: 311; 317).
The NBSC had nevertheless evinced that Black Power was neither ignored nor considerably opposed by most Black church members and that a Catholic movement that sought self-determination and challenged old religious habits indeed existed. In fact, Cressler concludes that “the Black Catholic struggle for racial justice […] was born of Black Power” (Cressler 2017: 199). Peniel Joseph’s prediction is that the Black Power historiography and thus our understanding of it will and must be enhanced by new historical studies on different aspects of the movement (Joseph 2009: 716). Shannen Dee Williams is publishing a book next month that offers insights into Black nuns’ commitment, among others, to Black Power and enriches the diverse history of the Black freedom struggle. It is but one of an increasing number of recent studies that examine the reciprocity between religion and radicalism and thereby enhance our understanding of the Black Power movement’s versatility. My study will further focus on the role of religious activism in Black Power and the impact of Black intellectual thought on local campaigns, which shall offer new insights into this historical era.
About the Author
Venus S. Bender is a doctoral candidate at the Institute of English and American Studies in Frankfurt. She received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Education and American Studies at Goethe University. Her research interests include modern history, race and religion, and the Black Power movement. You can contact her via email.
1. Gayraud Wilmore coined the term in his chapter, “The Dechristianization of Black Radicalism,” in his 1973 book, Black Religion and Black Radicalism, pp. 196-221. ↩
2. See also Albert B. Cleage, Jr., Black Christian Nationalism: New Directions for the Black Church (New York: W. Morrow, 1972). ↩
3. The Second Vatican Council took place under Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI between 1962 and 1965. With its ‘aggiornamento’ (in English: update), numerous changes were made, such as allowing nuns to wear lay clothing. Women in general no longer needed to cover their hair in church. See also Rose Aspholm, “A change in habit: Benedictine sisters, Vatican II and the pursuit of a meaningful renewal,” pp. 64-65.). ↩
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Header: “Daguerrotype with venerable Catherine McAuley” by Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Black militant Huey P. Newton: “Poster shows portrait photograph by Blair Stapp of Huey Newton sitting in a rattan throne chair with a rifle and a spear.” by Blair Stapp, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Black Power: “BLACK POWER, 1967. ‘We Want Black Power.’ Cover of a pamphlet distributed by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committe (SNCC), 1967.” by The Granger Collection, CC BY-SA 4.0