The U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s is, without a doubt, one of the finest examples of leadership, community organization, and successful activism that the modern world has been witness to. Under the direction of exemplary leaders such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Mrs. Jo Ann Robinson, and Mrs. Rosa Parks, significant advancements were made by the Civil Rights Movement, particularly in the state of Alabama.
During this era, the church was the epicenter of the African American community. As F. Douglas Powe states:
…the church was the most important institution within the community. The church was a space where African Americans were in control of their own reality. The church was a sanctuary in the truest sense of the word from the grind of life that many African Americans dealt with daily. It was the church which created an alternative reality to the harsh world on the other side of the doors, enabling many African Americans to have one space where they felt whole.
There can be no debating the fact that during this time the church played a central leadership role in the Civil Rights Movement, and a significant practical role too, through the hosting of mass meetings, providing space for training in non-violent protest to take place, and by using its resources to communicate necessary information as widely as possible in local communities. But can it be argued that the church, with its ancient Christian practice and tradition of biblical lament made an unrecognized, uniquely significant offering to the Civil Rights Movement? I believe so.
In this essay, I will argue that the ancient Christian practice of biblical lament played a uniquely important role in the life and success of the Civil Rights Movement. I will illustrate this significance by showing that it was lament which brought the community together; that it was lament which gave collective voice to the valid complaints of the individual within the gathered community; that it was lament which moved these people from complaint to action; and that it was lament which inspired a hope-filled vision of a different future for African American people in the United States.
To build this argument, it will be important to identify what biblical lament is. I will draw on several resources which will help define biblical lament and also help to find lament within the context of the Civil Rights movement. I will also highlight the differences between personal biblical lament and communal biblical lament, both of which will be illustrated with biblical examples as well as examples from within the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Finally, I will show that one of Dr. King’s most famous speeches, “Our God is Marching On!” can be interpreted as having incorporated the elements that make up the recognized structure of a biblical lament.
I will conclude that the church’s ancient tradition and practice of biblical lament played a centrally crucial role in giving voice to the complaints of the African American community in mid 20th century America; that it moved people from complaint to non-violent action; and that it inspired, all along the way, a hope-filled vision of a better future for their community. I will also conclude that the ancient Christian practice of lament, which is so evident in the story and central to the success of the Civil Rights Movement, needs to be recovered again in the life of the church today if the church is to once again be a gathering place which gives voice to the complaints of communities, moves people to actions, and inspires a hope filled vision of a different future.
What is Biblical Lament?
In my experience, when the word ‘lament’ is brought up in general conversation, it is usually referring to a complaint that is being made, out of a sense of loss or grief – regardless of whether the loss/grief is significant or not. For example, one might say that Mrs. Smith lamented the loss of her time when her doctor’s office was running behind schedule resulting in a delayed appointment. The loss of time may or may not be significant for Mrs Smith, but the inconvenience has brought about a complaint; a lament. Dictionary definitions of the word lament confirm this understanding. Dictionary.com defines lament as feeling or expressing sorrow or regret for; mourning for or over; mourning deeply. When lament is only understood in this way, it becomes something that simply stops at the point of complaint and grief. There is no progression or end in sight for the complaint or grief. The ancient Christian practice of biblical lament is quite different from this.
Although biblical lament can be found in various places throughout Scripture, it is most commonly found in the book of Psalms. A full third of the 150 Psalms are recognized as laments. Structurally, these lament Psalms each move through a similar structure and have similar elements, which can be identified as: Address, Complaint, Request, and Expression of Trust in God. As can be seen from these elements, the movement of a lament Psalm is a movement from complaint to trust, or, as Logan C. Jones puts it, there is a “distinctive movement from plea to praise…”
Whereas, the dictionary definition and general conversational understanding of lament suggests that it is a complaint or expression of grief that has no progression or end in sight, the structure of a biblical lament shows movement and a desire for change. Denise Dombkowski-Hopkins highlights this well when she states: “A lament does not merely bemoan hardship, but rather, seeks change.”
In my research, I have discovered two helpful definitions of biblical lament. Andrew Williams broadly defines it as a “grieving for the present situation yet acting in the hopeful assurance that God will deliver and redeem.” In the same article, Williams cites Rebekah Eklund, who defines biblical lament by stating:
Lament is a persistent cry for salvation to the God who promises to save, in a situation of suffering or sin, in the confident hope that this God hears and responds to cries, and acts now and in the future to make whole. Lament calls upon God to be true to God’s own character and to keep God’s own promises, with respect to humanity, Israel, and the church.
Williams emphasizes the importance of the individual or community not only grieving vocally for the present situation, but also acting in a hope-filled assurance that God will bring the individual or community through the present trial. But, while Williams implies that action on the part of the complainer is necessary, Eklund places more emphasis on the actions of God in response to lament. In Eklund’s definition of biblical lament, all the redemptive and restorative action is God’s responsibility, and this action is taken by God in response to the lamenting cries of God’s people.
Biblical lament can be broken down and defined even further in to two sub categories: individual biblical lament and communal biblical lament. As the description suggests, an individual biblical lament is the lament of a single voice crying out to God in faithful complaint. Psalm 3 is an example of an individual biblical lament and it contains the above described elements and structure of a lament:
O Lord, (Address)
how many are my foes!
Many are rising against me;
Many are saying to me, “There is no help for you in God.” (Complaint)
But you, Lord, are a shield around me, my glory and the one who lifts up my head.
I cry aloud to the Lord, and he answers me from his holy hill (Expression of Trust)
I lie down and sleep; I wake up again, for the Lord sustains me.
I am not afraid of ten thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around.
Rise up, O Lord!
Deliver me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
you break the teeth of the wicked. (Request)
Deliverance belongs to the Lord;
may your blessings be on your people!
Whereas an individual lament is the cry of a lone voice, a communal lament is the complaint of a community; the cry of a gathered group of people. Psalm 74 is an example of such a communal lament. It also contains the elements of a typical lament and follows the classic lament structure. In verse one is the simple address, “O God…,” followed by the complaining question, “…why do you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture” (Psalm 74:1). The complaint is developed as the people describe to God each of the transgressions of their foes: “They behaved like men wielding axes…They smashed all the carved paneling…They burned your sanctuary to the ground; they defiled the dwelling place of your Name” (Psalm 74:5-7). The expression of trust comes, in verses 12-17, before the request of the people is brought before God at the close of the Psalm: “Have regard for your covenant…Do not let the downtrodden be put to shame; let the poor and needy praise your name. Rise up, O God, plead your cause…” (Psalm 74:20-22).
Individual Lament & Communal Lament in the Civil Rights Movement
When I consider biblical lament as I believe it was manifested in the Civil Rights Movement, I believe that both the emphases of Williams and Eklund (i.e. crying out to God and acting in hopeful assurance) were necessarily present in the movement. I also see clear examples of both individual and communal lament.
The cries of the African American community were heard clearly in the words of the songs and spirituals that were sung at mass meetings. In a recent Civil Rights Pilgrimage to Alabama I visited many significant sites. Three such sites were churches in Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma: Bethel Baptist Church, Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, and Brown Chapel AME Church, respectively. As our group visited each site we were hosted by a local church member/tour guide. In each place our guides either played recorded spirituals for us, or they led us in song themselves. In Bethel Baptist Church, Martha Bouyer, executive director of the Historic Bethel Baptist Church Foundation made a point of making sure our group understood the prevailing theme of the songs she played to us, namely that they were all a cry for freedom and they were being sung out by an entire gathered community who had become “tired of being trampled by oppression.”
These songs and spirituals not only named the complaint of the people, but they gave the individual a medium through which he or she could raise his or her voice with his or her gathered community in a collective complaint. But not only this. These songs and spirituals, along with the inspired preaching that was also a part of the mass meetings, moved these same individuals from complaint to action – action that would ultimately bring about significant change. For example, in Montgomery, when it had been decided that a bus boycott would be a valid means of protesting injustice and inequality, there still needed to be an alternative transport plan. The members of the African American community had to turn the lament of their spirituals and sermons into action. And they did. Dr King writes of one mass meeting at which the communal lament of the mass meeting was transformed into hope-filled action:
Fortunately a mass meeting was being held that night. There I asked all those who were willing to offer their cars to give us their names…The response was tremendous. More than one hundred and fifty signed slips volunteering their automobiles. Some, who were not working offered to drive in the car pool all day; others volunteered a few hours before and after work. Practically all of the ministers offered to drive whenever they were needed.
It’s clear that communal lament offered a powerful means by which the complaint of the African American community could be lifted up before God, and before one another. It is also clear that this communal lament not only voiced complaint and expressed trust in God, but also moved people from complaint to action, and gave them a hope filled vision of how different and how much better their future could be.
Individual lament also played a significant role in the story of the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama. Of course, the individual cries of the people who came to mass meetings, can certainly be understood as individual laments in and of themselves. But one very significant moment of lament in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King can be considered as a turning point in his ministry and leadership in the Civil Rights Movement. When our group visited the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church parsonage, to tour the home in which Dr. King and his family resided while King was pastor there, we moved from room to room hearing stories of some of the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement which had taken place in that very house. Each room and each story bore its own significance in the context of the overall Civil Rights Alabama story, but one in particular stood out. Our guide, Dr. Shirley Cherry, finished of our tour in the kitchen of the parsonage and told us the story of a moment of individual lament which had taken place there. Dr. King had endured a difficult period in which he and his family had received many threats and harassments. These threats had taken their toll on Dr. King, and had brought him to a point in which he no longer felt he could go on in his prominent leadership role. One evening, he had received another threatening phone call, and found himself unable to sleep. He rose from his bed and made his way to the kitchen, and having made some coffee, sat at the table. Dr. King himself described this significant moment of personal lament in his book, Stride Toward Freedom:
I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. Finally, I went down to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, with my courage all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
King goes on to describe the moments after he prayed this prayer as being moments in which he experienced the presence of the Divine like he never had before. He states that he heard a voice of quiet assurance which affirmed his ministry and role. Having experienced this, King writes, “Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”
King’s individual lament at the kitchen table in the Dexter Avenue Church parsonage was a turning point in his ministry and leadership, and thus was a turning point also for the Civil Rights Movement. Both King’s individual lament, and the communal lament of the people expressed in mass meetings and in the singing of spirituals serve as evidence of the crucial role that biblical lament played in the life and story of the Alabama Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
During my Alabama Pilgrimage, I had the opportunity, with our group, to tour several museums and centers established to continue telling the story of the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama. In centers in Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma one exhibit seemed to be common: the repeated playing of Dr. King’s most famous speeches. The one that remains prominent in my mind is the speech, Our God is Marching On, delivered in Montgomery, Alabama on March 25th, 1965.
On returning from the Pilgrimage, I sought out the text of the entire speech for study and reflection. As I read through it, I began to notice the recognized elements of biblical lament. Of course, it would not be fair to argue that this speech was structured as a lament given that it was a celebratory speech delivered on the arrival in Montgomery of the march from Selma. However, as much as the speech is a celebratory one, it is also clear that Dr. King’s purpose was not only to celebrate, but also to remind the people gathered of how far they had come and how far they still had to go.
The speech is not a biblical lament in that it does not open with a direct ‘address’ to God, although God is certainly referenced, and given glory at the conclusion. But the other elements of biblical lament can be seen throughout. There is a long litany of ‘complaint,’ as Dr. King charts the history of the African American people and their long struggle with inequality and injustice. The complaint is emphasized again at the conclusion of the speech:
Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken our understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?” Somebody’s asking, “When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the south, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men…
The ‘request’ element is found in the section of the speech in which King implores his listeners to continue in their triumphant march. And the ‘expression of trust’ is evident in a two-fold way. First, Dr. King expresses trust in the non-violent means by which the people have come so far. But ultimately, King’s expression of trust is found in his assertion of confidence in truth, and in God:
“I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth crushed to earth will rise again…How long? Not long because…His truth is marching on.”
As stated above, it would be too far to argue that this speech is a biblical lament, but a careful reading of this speech does show that Dr. King, either knowingly or unknowingly, employed the elements of biblical lament as he called listeners to “continue their triumphant march to the realization of the American dream.” King employed the elements of biblical lament to voice the complaint of the people, to call them to continue in their action, and to continue to give them a hope-filled vision of a better future for their community in the United States.
Whether it was in the singing of spirituals in mass meetings, in the lamenting Divine encounters of individuals in their most weak and vulnerable moments, or in the words of speeches made by leaders that voiced the collective complaint of the African American community and called them to move from bemoaning hardship to pro-actively seeking change, it is clear that the ancient tradition of biblical lament played a uniquely significant part in the life of the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama during the 1950’s and 1960’s.
It was in lamenting together as a community that complaint was made before God regarding the injustice of inequality and harsh treatment. It was in lamenting together that the African American community moved from mere complaint to non-violent, and, ultimately, change-inducing action. And it was in biblical lamenting (which is distinctive because it arrives at hope, and always ends up trusting in God’s promise of a better future) that the people maintained a vision of how life could be different and better for them.
Unfortunately, in the 21st century American church, the practice of biblical lament sometimes seems to be all but lost. Perhaps it is time for the church to look back, just a few short decades, at the Civil Rights Movement and learn again the deep value of lament; of complaining in faith to God regarding the plight of an individual or a community, of being moved beyond complaint to action, and of maintaining trust in God for a different future. It is my position that by learning lessons from the Civil Rights Movement, and the role of the church within it, the 21st century American church might once again mobilize its people and become a powerful catalyst for positive, kingdom change throughout society.
 Douglas F. Powe, New Wine, New Wineskins, (Nashville: Abingdon, 20012) 29.
 Denise Dombkowski-Hopkins, Journey Through the Psalms, (St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice
Press, 2002) 81-82.
 Logan C. Jones. “The Psalms of Lament and the Transformation of Sorrow.” The Journal Of Pastoral Care & Counseling 61, no. 1-2 (2007): 47-58.
 Hopkins, Journey Through the Psalms, 82.
 Andrew Williams. “Biblical Lament and Political Protest” Accessed August 30th, 2017 http://www.jubilee-centre.org/biblical-lament-political-protest-andrew-williams/
 Rebekah Eklund, “Lord, Teach Us How to Grieve: Jesus’ Laments and Christian Hope.” In Biblical Lament and Political Protest, Andrew Williams. Accessed August 30th, 2017 http://www.jubilee-centre.org/biblical-lament-political-protest-andrew-williams/
 Martin Luther King, Stride Towards Freedom, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958) 54.
 King, Stride Towards Freedom, 61.
 King, Stride Toward Freedom, 124-125.
 King, Stride Toward Freedom, 125.
 Martin Luther King, “Our God is Marching On.” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute (Stanford University), Accessed on 19th September, 2017. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/our-god-marching
 King, “Our God is Marching On.” Accessed on 19th September, 2017. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/our-god-marching
Dictionary.com, ‘Lament’ definition, http://www.dictionary.com/browse/lament
Dombkowski-Hopkins, Denise, Journey Through the Psalms, St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 2002
Jones, Logan C. “The Psalms of Lament and the Transformation of Sorrow.” Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling: Advancing Theory and Professional Practice through Scholarly and Reflective Publications, vol. 61, no. 1-2, 2007, pp. 47–58.
King, Martin Luther. “Our God Is Marching On!” Our God Is Marching On! | The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute , http://www.kinginstitute.stanford.edu/our-god-marching.
King, Martin Luther, Stride Towards Freedom, Boston: Beacon Press, 1958
Powe, Douglas F., New Wine, New Wineskins, Nashville: Abingdon, 20012.
Williams, Andrew. “Biblical Lament and Political Protest by Andrew Williams.” Jubilee Centre, Jubilee Centre, 6 Oct. 2014, http://www.jubilee-centre.org/biblical-lament-political-protest-andrew-williams/.