Thabiti Anyabwile on Ecumenicism of the Civil Rights Movement

In this video, TGC Council member Thabiti Anyabwile looks back at the ecumenical involvement in the civil rights movement and sees it as a social good in righting an injustice without watering down the theological beliefs of the African American church.


As the civil rights movement matured, there was more and more ecumenical involvement. Eastern Orthodox folks were on the front line. Roman Catholic folks were on the front line. Jewish persons joined the ranks. All of these people were risking their lives. It became a fairly ecumenical movement.

The question is asked whether this kind of ecumenical collaboration is a net positive, a good thing, or net negative, a bad thing. I think in many respects, it’s an indifferent thing. I’m not sure that this particular collaboration affected the church negatively as ecumenism often does. I’m not sure you see the African American church tilting toward another gospel in that regard, but I do think what we see is some developed sense of collaboration, co-belligerency, and alliance forming for an obvious positive social good. In that way the ecumenism is a benefit.

It would not have been possible, I think, for African Americans alone to produce the kind of changes that we saw as a result of civil-rights movement. It took a lot of folks stricken in conscience and pierced in heart who were not African American to join that movement and say, “This is my America too, and we can live up to our best ideals. We should do what’s right.” That breadth began to give the movement more power and more reach that I think is positive and instructive.

So, that kind of ecumenism strategically was necessary to the political gains and the social changes. I don’t know that it was a negative for the church itself. And I say that because I don’t know that I see a lot of people who collaborated with Jews and Muslims on civil rights who decided to stop preaching the gospel. I don’t know that I see that. And I think we might be in danger of importing today’s gospel-centered perspective on everything. We might be in danger of anachronistically importing that back to a time period that didn’t frame these issues in quite that way.