Spirituality & Black History

February is Black History Month, a time when parents, teachers, and the media share stories of African American civil rights leaders with children. We want our kids to hear about the courage and resilience of those who marched and picketed and refused to move to the back of the bus. We hope they will appreciate the sacrifices people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks made in the name of social justice.

What children don’t often hear are stories of how spiritual beliefs and practices shaped and motivated black leaders. Sometimes they’re told that MLK was a pastor or that Malcolm X converted to Islam, but that’s about it. They have little information to help them connect black spirituality with ethical action. It’s as if spiritual motivations aren’t an important part of social change.

To remedy this disconnection, talk with children about the faith of civil rights leaders. Start with the leaders they are learning about in school, and then do some research together to find other examples of faith and social action. To get you started, here are several examples of black leaders whose spiritual beliefs prompted their activism and some ways of exploring their beliefs further.

Mary McLeod Bethune incorporated the teachings of Gandhi in her activism. A Black educator and daughter of a slave, she told her students, “Any idea that keeps anybody out is too small for this age—open your heart and let everybody in.” Wonder with children about the ‘too small’ ideas that are hurting some people today and what it would mean to open our hearts to them instead.

There’s a quotation attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr. that also can spark connections between faith and action: “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” Ask children to identify a major problem they see in the world (e.g. racism, climate change, food insecurity). Brainstorm different things they could do to address the problem. Then encourage each child to take one step, believing that their first action will lead them to another step, and then another.

Tiferet Berenbaum emphasizes the Jewish concepts of rachmanos (mercy) and tikkun olam (repairing the world) in her work for racial justice. An African American rabbi, she says that we need to learn to tell each other, “You belong here. We’re expecting you. We want you. This is your home too.” Invite children to talk about places where they don’t feel like they belong. Ask: What would make you feel at home? Then explore how they can extend that same welcome to others.

As a Zen Buddhist, angel Kyodo Williams teaches that social healing comes through practicing love and self-worth across racial lines. She says, “Without inner change there can be no outer change. Without collective change, no change matters.” Talk about the relationship between motivation and action. Sometimes we know the right thing to do but we don’t feel like doing it. Ask: What kinds of feelings prevent you from doing the right thing? How can we motivate each other to work for justice?

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