Spirituality during the Civil Rights Movement:
A Determined Spirit
Dr. Mark Pruett- Barnett
This paper is dedicated to Mrs. Andrewetta Anderson Shaw
If one is religious then one is spiritual, which is what enlivens and inspires someone through life. Although people through history have faced insurmountable odds, many times it is their spirituality that compels them through those hardships. The African American’s battle began early in history during the slave trade and continued through slavery in the South, which led to their social inequality when they were emancipated. During the years 1954 through 1968, the Civil Rights Movement was a time of discrimination, prejudice, and rebellion1. People of color united to conquer a common cause, equality under the law. Churches became a meeting place and community where social frustration could be released; people could worship, and ultimately would find that God would provide for them an escape. Spirituality is what drove the people to unite and stand together as a race that also is a creation of God. Andrewetta Anderson Shaw was a victim during this time in United States history, when she was greatly hated simply because of the color of her skin, but from this came her spirituality. She is a survivor of the Civil Rights Movement and this is her legend as an advocate and protestor of the time.
It is difficult to believe that such demoralizing acts against an entire race took place in the United States just forty years ago. The courage and spirit of the African American people is what united them together to gain equal protection under the law. Andrewetta Anderson Shaw experienced the civil rights baneful hate crimes in North Carolina.
Her mother worked as a teacher and her father a truck driver who earned a reasonable salary. Andrewetta had a younger brother and the family lived in an all black town, which isolated them from the evil that was occurring outside the town. As a child she attended all black schools growing up and did not experience or witness discrimination when her family moved to a nicer town with white neighbors, Andrewetta was about to witness and become involved in a movement that affected America.
It was not long before her family endured the cross burnings in their yard from the Ku Klux Klan2. Her mother and father would spend every night taking turns sitting at the window with a shotgun in order to protect Andrewetta and her little brother while they slept. The countless number of stressful events ultimately waned on the family. Her father died from a massive heart attack just six months after the move when she was only five years old. Soon after her fathers’ heart attack, her mother suffered from
one also and resigned from teaching to become a cafeteria worker. Andrewetta’s early witness of fear and terror was just the beginning of many more events that would shape her spirit.
In 1963, Andrewetta went to United Methodist Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina to earn a double major in biology and chemistry. During her first summer as a college student she became a North Carolina volunteer and was assigned to the city of Jonesville, North Carolina. There she lived with house parents, ten other whites and a young black man while she worked. The only other black friend she had made a huge, life changing decision to stay in Jonesville against his family’s wishes, which denied him of his life inheritance. This was a major awakening for Andrewetta because she saw the dedication and belief that her people had, because he stayed to help her.
It was not as easy for blacks as it was for white people to enjoy a movie or lunch together because of the segregation and second class status that they held. At a movie theater, Andrewetta along with some friends were forced to sit in the balcony of the theater. When leaving the Ku Klux Klan approached them and stood in their regalia with poles of fire, threatening her and her friends like animals. Andrewetta and her friends had to hide for hours until the anger in the area ceased. This type of fear tactic enraged the people and fueled their drive to accomplish equality, by whatever means necessary.
The black community gathered for protests against injustice, and the unthinkable occurred to them. They decided to practice Gandhi’s3 idea of nonviolent disobedience to display frustration and demand equality even in the midst of confrontation. One of Martin Luther King’s most notorious protests was the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in a nonviolent demonstration for the right to vote (At Cannan’s Edge 141).
As a human with equal rights not granted to her because of the color of her skin, Andrewetta had split feelings toward the Voting Rights Act. Voting was a born right given to her, how could anyone dare to think that they had the right to give or take away her right to vote? She felt strongly that God gave her that right when he announced her to the world. Andrewetta, as well as other blacks involved in the movement believed that marches were a comradeship that the people had. They allowed each other to see that they were not alone: when they stepped out for the cause, they were not stepping out by themselves. Marches included people from all other races and allowed Andrewetta to see that all Caucasians were not what she had thought. Blacks, Caucasians, Koreans, Chinese, men, women, students, children, mom’s and dad’s were all marching in a nonviolent method to obtain equality in restaurants, workforce, developments, etc., and this is what Andrewetta knew that God would want! This is how heaven would be! All of us together!
During these marches police, in order to divide crowds and humiliate the black community, would attack men and women of all ages. Helpless people were hosed down with water from high-pressure hoses and dogs bit at their helpless bodies in efforts to break up unruly crowds. The police were taking every one as prisoners; even young children who joined protestors filled the jails in Birmingham, Alabama (Parting the Waters 756). Andrewetta experienced these torturous acts of hate, she was involved in a nonviolent protest that was broken up with water hoses and nearly all of the demonstrators were taken to jail, including her. She was also threatened by the German shepherd dogs and eventually bitten. To this day, she is afraid of dogs and the sight of one is a constant memory of the horror she endured that day. The Freedom Riders4 also used nonviolence as a way of combat to defeat segregation on the buses, but faced horrible beatings and torture from mobs during their journey from Washington D.C. to Alabama (Parting the Waters). Andrewetta perceived the Freedom Riders as a Peace Corps within the United States. Sit-ins were mostly conducted by college students (including Andrewetta) at lunch counters as a means of nonviolent demonstration against injustice. Andrewetta and her friends were harassed in response to these protests by prejudice whites pouring ketchup in their hair and drinks down their clothes, wanting them to move. One well- known sit-in was the student organized protest at Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960 (Smithsonian). Sit-ins offered young men and women with no special skills or resources an opportunity to display their discontent and attempt to raise white awareness. Protestors were encouraged to dress up, sit quietly, and occupy every other stool so potential white sympathizers could join in. Nonviolent protest was a popular method used during this time. Leaders were beginning to surface from large organizations, like SNCC5, to take a prominent stand for their people.
Andrewetta was spiritually guided through the civil rights movement, and many leaders reached out to give more empowerment to the people. Martin Luther King Jr. was a powerful speaker who inspired thousands of people in the movement. He was committed to nonviolence and had a strong religious background that bonded others of faith to the common cause.
Andrewetta and her people were beginning to see that the cause was in the hands of a higher power. To lift their sprits they sang triumph songs like, “ We Shall Overcome”, and “Victory is Mine”. She was taught that the battle was the Lords’ and therefore she began to pray for those persons who were attacked for no reason or had a parent kidnapped in the night only to be found dead. In front of her eyes she began to see that the battle was so big that only God and God alone could conquer the persons who were oppressing them.
Malcolm X6 was a bold movement leader that influenced Andrewetta. Like her, Malcolm had to go through an angry time and fought an inward battle with that anger. Malcolm also saw that the battle was to big for him to fight alone and he knew the bitterness that he had felt was only doing damage to his soul. It was at this point in his life that Malcolm X chose nonviolence.
There are many other leaders that played a significant role in Andrewettas’ life as a young woman in civil rights movement. Andrewetta identified with leaders such as the Black Panther Party7, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Gandhi. Andrewetta claims to have loved the Panther Movement because they made black people feel proud and helped her to regain her own self esteem. Rosa Parks8, Medgar Evers9, Franklin McCain10, and Ezell Blair11 all offered their lives for equality as well. Needless to say there are thousands of names that did not make it to the media, but ultimately gave their lives.
After finishing college, Andrewetta pursued a job in a research lab during 1969 through 1970. She was the only person in the research lab with a degree, but her degree was not respected because she was black. Andrewetta faced discrimination even in a large research corporation and was not able to become head of the laboratory because of the color of her skin. While traveling on trains she had to bring her own lunches because she was not able to eat in the dining car, and while on a bus she, along with other black people, would be forced to stand up on the bus while the driver purposefully made sharp turns so that the blacks would fall on each other. Her life was full of hate that she could not understand which is why she left the corporation to become a teacher like her mother.
In 1980, she was a sought after teacher for her dynamic style and became the first black biology teacher at the school. Prejudice unfortunately was still lingering and for the first year, parents would stand outside of her classroom door and listen to see if she knew what she was teaching. In 1981, she became teacher of the year for that district. Despite all the struggles she faced, her heart was in the right place.
Andrewetta Anderson Shaw was just one of the thousands of African American’s that endured such pain and hatred only forty years ago. Her spirituality and commitment to God is what she and many others looked to for guidance and hope. Seeing the degradation of so many people, like herself that were drinking from the warm water fountain, riding on the back of the bus, being called names that hurt and were thought to be incompetent are just some of the accounts that helped mold her spirituality. Her spirit grew stronger as she endured seeing people that knew that; although water hoses were being aimed at them, German Shepherds were turned lose on them, Freedom Riders went to the South were sometimes never to be seen again, people of color were being hung in trees, crosses were being burned in their yards, an intense fear of what the Ku Klux Klan could do, and considered a second class citizen or not a citizen at all, they still fought.
The people united, motivated to never lose hope, so that one day they will be equal. Andrewetta’s strength comes from the Lord and neither the Klan nor anyone else would ever be successful in destroying her spirituality. All of the barriers of the Civil Rights Movement that she faced only made her stronger. She devoted her life to God and to live a Christian life, which has allowed her to heart to soften, although she often ponders why people hated so them much to such a degree of taking lives just because their color of skin was so different. She wondered why some were so ignorant and felt that they knew all, blaming all problems on black people. Out of need and fear, Andrewetta preferred to stay in the secret place (Psalm 91) and chose to pray and read the word of God. Through reading the Bible, she saw how biblical persons facing hard times fought their battles. She recalled the three in the fiery furnace, Esther, and the theme throughout the Bible that is to call in the name of Jesus. The religious aspect of her experience was observing persons of every faith coming together for the same cause. Watching leaders who were ministers gathering hundreds to listen to sermons to uplift their spirit. Through Christ she is still able to love even when she has lived through so much pain.
Anderson-Shaw, Andrewetta. Telephone interview. 21 May 2007.
Anderson-Shaw, Andrewetta. E-Mail interview. 19 May 2007.
Branch, T (1988). Parting the Waters. New York, New York: Simon and Schuster.
Branch, T (1998). Pillar of Fire. New York, New York: Simon and Schuster.
Branch,T (2006). At Canaans’s Edge. New York, New York: Simon and Schuter.
Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Woolworth Sit-in. Accessed May 23rd, 2007.
Ku Klux Klan. (n.d.). The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Retrieved May 22, 2007, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/ku klux klan
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Gandhi. (n.d.). The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Retrieved May 22, 2007, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/Gandhi
Malcolm x. (n.d.). The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Retrieved May 23, 2007, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/malcolm x
SNCC. (n.d.). The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Retrieved May 23, 2007, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/SNCC
Black Panther Party. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Retrieved May 23, 2007, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/Black Panther Party
Rosa Parks. (n.d.). The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Retrieved May 23, 2007, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/Rosa Parks
Medgar Evers. (n.d.). WordNet® 3.0. Retrieved May 23, 2007, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/Medgar Evers
Ezell Blair. Retrieved May 23rd, 2007 from website: http://www.africanamericans.com/Greensboro4.htm