Commentary: Remembering Black Atheists From History

The growing African-American atheist movement wants to remind you that not all Black heroes found haven in the church. 

Posted: 02/23/2012 05:45 PM EST
Langston Hughes

When most Americans think of the civil rights movement and early African-American advancement, they also tend to think of religion. From what most of our history books tell us, it was groups like Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Malcolm X’s Nation of Islam that catalyzed Black progress. This isn’t to say that people of all races and denominations weren’t a part of civil rights — many Jews, for instance, played a big roll in ending Jim Crow — but regardless of what those people looked like, they mostly met in churches, mosques and synagogues. Even nowadays, Black leaders like Reverend Jesse Jackson and Reverend Al Sharpton remain deeply rooted in the church while they pursue racial justice.

While most African-Americans fought against bigotry from pews in the church, however, some did not, and you don’t hear about these people very often. The growing Black atheist movement wants to put a stop to that.

Did you know that famous Black author Langston Hughes (pictured above) had doubts about religion? Did you know that A. Philip Randolph, a labor organizer who stood by Dr. King’s side during his “I Have a Dream” speech, was an atheist? It’s likely that you didn’t, and it’s likely many others don’t, too. That’s because, for whatever reason, the accomplishments of Black atheists have been overlooked by many historians in favor of the accomplishments of Blacks who made names for themselves from behind a pulpit.

"So often people look at atheists as if they have horns on their heads," Norm R. Allen Jr., of the Institute for Science and Human Values, told USA Today. "In order to correct that, it would be important to correct the historical record and show that African-American humanists have been involved in numerous instances in the civil rights movement and before.”

The idea is that if more African-Americans knew how great many historical Black atheists have been, they may be less likely to condemn and alienate modern Black atheists. In other words, the idea is to open people’s minds and stop them from judging their fellow man, which is probably what Jesus would have wanted anyway. 

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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