David Dixon on Religious Rhetoric and the Civil Right Movement
Date: March 16th, 2014

It is well known that the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century had a strong religious character to it, with individuals such as Rev. Martin Luther King playing a prominent role and with churches being the locus of organization.  How far does the influence of religion extend, though?  Prof. David Dixon, professor of political science at St. Joseph’s College, discusses a major undertaking the he and his colleague Davis Houck have been working on in documenting the amazing breadth of religious influence in that social movement.  Both Prof. Dixon and Prof. Houck have spent countless hours sifting through audio and video archives looking at how religious rhetoric was used broadly in the fight for African American civil rights.

Dave begins the podcast detailing how this project came about, a particularly interesting story given that he specializes in Latin America and not mid-20th century U.S. history.  He also tells the enormous effort he has put forth to locate rather obscure sermons and other speeches from individuals who are not household names.  The discussion about the methodological issues surrounding this project are fascinating, including commentary about how he and his colleague had to track down the survivors of the Civil Rights Movement or their children in order to get permission to publish some of these transcripts.

We then take our discussion into some of the content that Dave has uncovered.  He notes how the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement reflected a growing confidence between 1954 and 1965 (the boundaries of their study).  We also review some of the common themes that crop up, including references to the books of Exodus and Amos in the Old Testament.  There are other interesting observations that Dave makes, including the importance of missionary movements in Africa and how it was difficult for many pastors to preach the liberating effects of Christianity to Africans only to bring some of their leaders back to the United States and have those individual experience various forms of segregation and oppression.  Dave then recounts some of his favorite sermons from his two volume collection (plus an additional one on women in the Civil Rights Movement), noting how all forms of rhetoric from anger to humor were used to make salient points to diverse audiences.

We finish the podcast with some miscelleneous thoughts about how this project dovetails with Dave’s work on Latin America.  He notes the various themes of liberation that are common between the two areas of research.  He also has some reflections upon Pope Francis and how all of this might be related.  The interview is peppered throughout with personal stories, making this a deeply personal interview.  Recorded: March 7, 2014.


David Dixon’s homepage at St. Joseph’s College.

Rhetoric, Religion, and the Civil Rights Movement 1954-1965, Volume 1 and Volume 2, by Davis W. Houck and David E. Dixon.

Women and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965, by Davis W. Houck and David E. Dixon.

Zarytheus, a public access journal run by David Dixon and mentioned on the podcast.


Darin Mather on Evangelicals and Racial Attitudes.

Merisa Davis on Bill Cosby, Religion, and African American Churches.

3 Responses to “David Dixon on Religious Rhetoric and the Civil Right Movement”

  1. […] In this podcast, host Tony Gill talks with David Dixon of St. Joseph’s College about his efforts to document how religion shaped the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Dixon and his colleague Davis Houck have been gathering long-forgotten sermons and speeches that gave the movement its religious language. Dixon talks about the themes they found in the religious language of the movement, particularly the hopeful references to the liberation found in Exodus and Amos. The podcast not only paints a picture of how religion shaped the civil rights movement, it also gives a glimpse at how researchers approach this topic, from the mundane frustrations of copyrights to the interweaving of a researcher’s subject and personal life. […]

  2. […] David Dixon on Religious Rhetoric and the Civil Rights Movement. […]

  3. […]  David Dixon on Religious Rhetoric and the Civil Rights Movement. […]

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