06/06/2013 01:10 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2013

Rhetoric, Race and Religion: The Civil Rights Movement

This summer for two weeks at Memphis Theological Seminary, I get to teach "Rhetoric of Race: The Rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement." In this class, we engage in a careful reading of major sermons, speeches and writings during the Civil Rights Era (1954-1965). From this, by grounding ourselves in rhetorical and other communication theories and practices, we examine the contributions of significant people to the movement by examining the ways in which they grounded their discourse in religious language. Studying the Civil Rights Movement and the use of religious testimony, the application of civil religion, the use of the Bible, the use of biblical narratives, the role of the Church, and an understanding of God and God's action in world, helps to provide a basis for reflection upon issues that are germane to us even today.

Part of the class is to do a daily reflection paper on topics discussed in class. I will share some of the students' reflections in a series of posts.

On the first night of class, to get a better understanding of how segregation became "normal" in America, we watched "The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, Part 1" and talked about the Plessy v. Ferguson decision that led to "Separate but Equal" doctrine. Many of the students wrote their reflect paper on their own responses to watching the film. In noticing how the "ideology" of race is powerful, one student remarked, "Race, as a biological phenomenon is a fiction, but the damage that those who believe in this fiction can create, is appallingly real."

When the subject of lynching came up in the film one student wrote:

"God created humanity equal [but] what a sad indictment to God to have humans mistreating their fellow humans and thinking that it's okay with God. ... The condescending verbiage was enough to cause [me] to say like the disciples, "Lord, call fire down to consume them," but then you remember the words of Jesus and recant your thought."

Another student, reflecting on injustices at his place of employment and in his Mississippi hometown, just simply lamented, "Jim Crow is not dead by any stretch of imagination. He lives in the hearts and minds of those who feel blacks are and will forever be inferior to whites in America."

Yet another student searched deep within after watching the film and offered, "I thank God that I'm not bitter at white people. It is because I am a Christian. I love all my neighbors, friends, sisters and brothers in Christ." Further, anticipating the benefits of a class such as this, the student commented:

This reflection paper makes me wonder, what did my classmates think about the film? I'm looking forward to open discussion. The last time I had an open discussion on the civil rights movement it got out of control in my American History class twenty years ago in college. I know this time it will be in a safe and civilized environment. Why, because I will be in the presence of others who will embrace and respect my feelings.

I also look forward to having more conversations and reading more reflections as this class continues.