Martin Luther King from a Black Humanist View

We are familiar with Martin Luther King’s important work in the civil rights movement, and the tremendous role that some churches played in the fight for social justice. However, there were great humanists and humanistic ideals that preceded King and the movement.

King is best known for using passive resistance to fight for freedom, justice and equality. However, in the 19th century, Henry David Thoreau wrote his famous essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” His theory became influential after his death, largely because it is completely secular.

Thoreau’s earliest protest was lodged over a church/state separation issue. He was a schoolmaster in 1838, and the state of Massachusetts required him to pay a tax to a church he did not even attend. He refused to pay the tax, though another man paid it without his knowledge or approval.

Thoreau did not attend church and associated primarily with unchurched individuals. He believed that people have the right to disobey unjust laws, and that they were required to follow the dictates of their conscience, as opposed to divine or secular authorities.

Ironically, though King was a Christian, his entire crusade was in opposition to the biblical command to obey the authorities that were supposedly ordained by God (Romans 13: 1-3). Moreover, he opposed the First (Old) Testament law supporting “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a head for a head, and a life for a life.” Rather, like Gandhi, King said, “That old law about an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind.”

Christians had the support of many humanists during the civil rights movement. People such as A. Philip Randolph, James Farmer, James Forman, Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, and numerous others were major voices in the movement. Indeed, in his book, From Strength to Love, King wrote:

“I would be the last to condemn the thousands of sincere and dedicated people outside the churches who have labored unselfishly through various humanitarian movements to cure the world of social evils, for I would rather a man be a committed humanist than an uncommited Christian.”

King also firmly believed in church/state separation. In his famous 1965 interview in Playboy, he addressed the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that made prayer in public schools unconstitutional. He remarked:

“I endorse it. I think it was correct. Contrary to what many have said, it sought to outlaw neither prayer nor belief in God. In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken, and by whom? Legally, constitutionally, or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right. I am strongly opposed to the efforts that have been made to nullify the decision.”

This should not be surprising. According to his biographer David J. Garrow in Bearing the Cross, King read the writings of philosopher Paul Tillich and almost became an atheist. King’s major attraction to Christianity was its emphasis upon communal love, or agape.

King was also knowledgable about the so-called pagan origins of Christianity. He knew about the religion of Mithraism and its influence upon Christianity. He knew that, before Christians, devotees of Mithra accepted Sunday as their holy day, December 25th as the birth of Mithra, etc. (From the papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume 4, University Press of California.)

Martin Luther King was one of the most important individuals in American history. His religion greatly motivated him. However, after all is said and done, there is no evidence that God had anything whatsoever to do with the success of the civil rights movement. Everything that King and his supporters accomplished can be explained in terms that are clearly and strictly human. King and his followers, sang, spoke, marched, protested, etc. Human beings have always engaged in such behaviors. However, King performed no miracles of a religious nature. What King demonstrated is that human thought and human activism will always have to be at the center of any program of action geared toward gaining freedom, justice, and equality. This is a message that humanists have been trying to get across for years, and one we will continue to promote.

Martin Luther King from a Black Humanist View

Standing with Troy Davis as a Non-Believer

By Sikivu Hutchinson

This is a day of outrage for all who believe in justice and morality. The pending execution of Georgia Death Row inmate Troy Davis is an egregious reminder of the vicious cycle of immoral lynch mob justice that masquerades as due process in the United States, the exceptionalist “Christian Nation.” With 25% of the world’s prison population, the U.S. has devolved into the largest penitentiary on the planet. For poor people of color, the revolving door of incarceration often starts in K-12 schools that disproportionately suspend, transfer and expel black and Latino youth. But the media framing of black youth as violent lawless criminals influences their sense of self-image much earlier. When it comes to black youth, mainstream images of urban communities as crime-ridden cesspits with dysfunctional families shape the cultural perceptions of teachers, administrators, policymakers and law enforcement. These images disfigure the psyches of very young black children who see white lives humanized, prized and valued in the white supremacist American TV and film industries. Clearly, If Davis had been a white defendant the international outcry over his death sentence would have led to clemency. But in a nation in which African Americans are presumed guilty until proven innocent, the recanted testimony of seven witnesses is not enough to spare the life of an innocent black man.

Over the past several weeks, many prayers have been offered for Davis, his family and other Death Row inmates who may have been wrongly convicted. Certainly humanist atheists like me believe that the atrocity of Davis’ pending execution is yet another example of Epicurus’ caveat about the impotence of “God.” But the national visibility and leadership of the faith community around this issue highlights the need to develop explicitly secular humanist culturally responsive traditions for coping with death, mourning and grief in communities of color. It also highlights the continued need for the so-called secular movement to speak out on state-sanctioned human rights abuses perpetrated upon communities of color right here in the U.S.

At 9% of the Los Angeles Unified School District student population, black children are over 30% of those suspended. At 9% of the L.A. County population, black children and adults are nearly 40% of the County’s incarcerated population. In the final analysis, segregation, white supremacy and economic disenfranchisement—as well as heterosexism and patriarchy—keep many blacks and Latinos beholden to the faith community and faith traditions. Secularists who can’t wrap their mind around that, and continue to bemoan the lack of “diversity” in the movement, are a waste of crucial time and energy.

As activists across the globe stand for Davis against the all-American death machine, it should be clear that true justice has no faith and no religion.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars.

Standing with Troy Davis as a Non-Believer


Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) was one of the most impressive individuals of his time. He was one of history’s greatest orators, thinkers, and statesmen. As a writer, he has been compared to Shakespeare; as a thinker to Thomas Paine; as an orator he has been compared to Martin Luther King; and as a statesman to Abraham Lincoln.

Ingersoll courageously fought for the rights of women and children. He fought for the rights of African Americans and spoke out against slavery when it was unpopular to do so. Long before Martin Luther King, Ingersoll uttered these words:

“I have a dream that this world is growing better and better everyday and every year; that there is more charity, more justice, more love every day. I have a dream that prisions will not always curse the land; that the shadow of the gallows will not always fall upon the earth; that the withered hand of want will not always be stretched out for charity; that finally wisdom will sit in the legislatures, justice in the courts, charity will occupy all the pulpits, and that finally the world will be governed by justice and charity, and by the splendid light of liberty….” (The Works of Ingersoll, (The Dresden Edition), Volume IX, p. 186)

Ingersoll was a merciless critic of the Bible. Like Malcolm X in the following century, Ingersoll faulted biblical teachings that promoted “slave virtues” such as obedience and turning the other cheek. In response to the idea that victims should turn the other cheek, Ingersoll said that “Goodness should have the right to defend itself.” He noted that the Bible was used in every phase of slavery, from the naming and blessing of slave ships, to the selling of slaves at auctions, to the beating of slaves, and as an aid in teaching slaves to “get with the program.” Ingersoll stated that “The Bible was the real auction block on which every negro stood when he was sold.” (The Denver Republican, Denver, Colorado, January 17, 1884)

Ingersoll was a friend of Frederick Dougalss. Dougalss once visited Ingersoll at his home in Peoria, Illinois and was overwhelmed by his kindness and hospitality. Prior to his trip to Peoria, an African American activist told Douglass that Ingersoll is “a man that will receive you at any hour of the night, and in any weather….”

Long before King, Ingersoll noted that the churches were the most segregated institutions in America, yet bigoted White ministers talked about an integrated Heaven. He attacked segregation and noted that the KKK were among the most religious Christians in the U.S.

Despite his relentless critiques of Christianity, Ingersoll once donated money to a Black church. (However, a White minister asked him for a donation to rebuild his church after it was destroyed by a tornado. Ingersoll simply responded that if God Almighty blew the church down, he could blow it back together again.) Of African Americans, Ingersoll said, “They are the most forgiving people in the world, and about the only real Christians in our country.” (The Best of Robert Ingersoll: Selections from his writings and speeches, Roger E. Greeley, Editor, p. 19)

In 1881, a U.S. congressman proposed a bill to colonize Blacks in Mexico. Ingersoll opposed the legislation. He said:

“As the whites of the South become civilized the reason for going will be less and less….Now, if we could only have a colonization bill that would get rid of all the rowdies, all the rascals and hypocrites, I would like to see it carried out….Politically, if any black men are to be sent away, I want it understood that each one is to be accompanied by a Democrat, so that the balance of power, especially in New York, will not be disturbed.” (Washington Correspondent, the Brooklyn Eagle, January 31, 1881)

Ingersoll’s list of Black supporters reads like a Whos Who. Mary Church Terrell, the author, lecturer, and civil rights activist that led the fight to desegregate Washington, D.C., owed a great debt to him. In her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, Terrell wrote that Ingersoll was one of the best friends Black people ever had. (The Best of Robert Ingersoll, p. 154) Poet Paul Laurence Dunbar credited Ingersoll with landing him a job in Washington, D.C., (ibid, p. 63)

After Ingersoll died in 1899, Black nationalist Henry McNeal Turner eulogized him quite eloquently in his periodical, the Voice of Missions, September 1899. Perhaps the most effusive praise for “the Great Agnostic” came in a resolution enthusiastically adopted by the Indiana State Afro-American conference at Indianapolis, on July 26, 1899:

…Mr. Ingersoll always advocated for the rights of the oppressed. His ability and his purse were always at the service of our people. On all questions that arose concerning the colored people, Mr. Ingersoll was always found on our side. (Ingersoll: A Biographical Appreciation, Second Edition, in The Works of Ingersoll, (The Dresden Edition) Volume XIII, p. 448)

Humanity has never had a more loyal or loving friend than Robert Green Ingersoll.


Non-theism in Africa

Leo Igwe of the Nigerian Humanist Movement recently traveled to Australia to discuss the challenges that humanists and skeptics face in Nigeria. Most of those gathered to listen to his presentations walked away believing he is the lone non-theist hero in all of Africa.

However, Australian non-theists are not the only ones that embrace this mistaken notion. Indeed, most African American non-theists know very little about organized non-theism in Africa. For example, the Blacker-than-thou hard core Afrocentrists of the Black Atheists of Atlanta seem to be completely oblivious to the history of organized non-theism in Africa. Perhaps this should not be surprising considering that they apparently know very little about organized non-theism among Blacks in the U.S., and the great history of African American non-theists.

Leo Igwe is just one among many courageous African non-theists engaged in activism. Not long ago, I helped Igwe start an anti-superstition campaign in Africa, focusing primarily on combating the persecution and murders of alleged witches and wizards (mostly young children and elderly women, the most vulnerable members of society.) The Nigerian Humanist Movement has also fought for good science, church/state separation, the rights of women and sexual minorities, etc.

In Uganda, the Ugandan Humanist Effort to Save Women (UHESWO) rehabilitates prostitutes. They provide job training, temporary housing, jobs, business development, computer training, etc. However, they obviously cannot save everyone. Some of the destitute women continue to sell their bodies. Many of them complain that the men they have sex with refuse to use condoms, increasing the likelihood of the spread of HIV. For these women, members of UHESWO provide condoms.

Also in Uganda, the Women of the Free World Organization (WOFEWO) imparts humanist values to young girls. A few years ago, I presided over the inauguration of what is probably the only humanist soccer team in the world–the Emitos Girls Football Club. For African girls, often discouraged from participating in sports, this is a major source of empowerment. WOFEWO continues to empower girls–especially those from the villages–in many other ways.

The Secular Humanist Association of Malawi has made tremendous strides over the past few years. I have helped the group make humanism a national topic of discussion. The organization was part of a national radio debate on Christianity and secular humanism. They have had regular columns in the nation’s two largest newspapers. They have opposed the persecution of witches and defended the rights of sexual minorities.

In Kenya, organized humanists have held debates on the existence of God, intelligent design versus evolution, etc. They have held Darwin Day celebrations, fought against the persecution of alleged witches and wizards, etc.

These are just a few examples of the many African organizations of non-theists doing excellent work. Indeed, when I first formed African Americans for Humanism in 1989, there were two humanist groups in Nigeria, and one in Ghana. By the time I departed the organization in 2010, there were over 70 such groups in 30 African nations.

All of these African groups have been progressive. African culture (food, music, dance, clothing, etc.) figure largely into the succcess of these organizations. However, African humanist leaders consistently challenge harmful traditional ideas, customs, and practices.

The future of organized non-theism in Africa looks bright. It is not now, nor has it ever been, a one-man show. It is also worth noting that, unlike organized non-theism in most parts of the world, organized non-theism in Africa tends to attract mostly young peope. This will only bode well for its future.

Non-theism in Africa

Where are the Black Skeptics?

By Norm R. Allen Jr.

Certainly, Black skeptics are to be found among members of such groups as the Black Skeptics. However, when many people think of skeptics, they think of individuals such as Michael Shermer, organizations such as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (formerly known as the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, or CSICOP), and publications such as the Skeptical Inquirer.

Such individuals, organizations, and publications are primarily concerned with examining paranormal claims such as beliefs in ghosts, ESP, astrology, Earthly visitations from extraterrestrial aliens, cryptozoology (supposed creatures such as Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster), telekinesis, UFOs, etc. To a lesser extent, these skeptics are concerned with critiquing fringe science, bad science and pseudoscience.

Very few people of African descent have been attracted to groups of skeptics, and few have subscribed to skeptical publications. There are many reasons to be considered when pondering this situation.

Most White skeptics tend to be hopelessly Eurocentric. They speak and write glowingly of the Enlightenment and its ideals, yet offer no strong critiques of its limitations or shortsightedness. Moreover, many White skeptics tend to embrace conservative libertarian ideas about politics and economics; and many support evolutionary psychology, which is a discipline that some people view as having racist and sexist implications.

When most White skeptics speak or write about issues involving people of African descent, they do not focus on anything positive. They tend to disparage African culture as they critique juju, witchcraft and other superstitious beliefs.

White skeptics are quickly dismissive of any idea that sounds like a paranoid conspiracy theory. However, some Black skeptics actually embrace such theories. Others understand that, given the history of White supremacy, it would be foolish to be closed minded when talk of conspiracies arise.

Most White skeptics believe that genuine conspiracies cannot take place in ostensibly democratic nations such as the U.S. However, conspiracies have already taken place. The best known example is the Tuskegee experiment, in which African American men were left untreated for syphilis for decades. When confronted with this fact, most White skeptics tend to downplay it and/or dismiss it as a mere aberration.

However, this was no mere aberration. There have been many such conspiracies throughout Western history. For example, tens of thousands of U.S. citizens have been sterilized without their knowledge and against their will. Writing for the Associated Press, reporter Renee Elder states:

“More than 7,600 individuals were sterilized in the state [of North Carolina] under the eugenics program that ended in 1977 and largely targeted individuals who were young, poor, uneducated, mentally ill or Black. Some victims were as young as ten.”

She continues:

“Nationwide, there were more than 60,000 known victims of sterilization programs, with perhaps another 40,000 sterilized through ‘unofficial’ channels like hospitals or local health departments working on their own initiative.” (“NC sterilization victims urge fair compensation,” The Final Call, 7-26-11, page 4.)

The bottom line is that most White skeptics consider the government to be more benign and less powerful than do Blacks. African Americans are more likely to be aware of the history of government agencies—including the army—in spying on African Americans, and, in some cases, destroying African American organizations and undermining African governments. This disconnect will continue to assure that the numbers of Blacks interested in joining mainstream skeptics groups will be low.

Black standup comedians from Richard Pryor to Eddie Griffin have joked that UFOs never land in Black neighborhoods. It is true that Black people throughout the world do not generally give much thought to UFOs or profess to have been abducted by extraterrestrial aliens. (Even Louis Farrakhan’s Mother Plane tale is deemed absurd by most Black people that are aware of it).

However, the main reason Black skeptics are not obsessed with UFOs and other paranormal claims, is because such beliefs are relatively benign. After all, Black people have never been oppressed in the name of Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster. We have never been lynched by Martians or enslaved by astrologers. Black skeptics are primarily interested in fostering skeptical inquiry as a methodology in order to combat oppressive ideas and institutions, such as reactionary religions. That is one reason why, other than astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson, there are no other truly well-known Black skeptics.

Furthermore, White skeptics have never made any sustained efforts to promote skepticism among African Americans, or to attract African Americans to their ranks. Still, African Americans should learn to be skeptical as a habit. This includes skepticism of paranormal claims. We should not buy into paranoid conspiratorial thinking. On the other hand, it would be foolish to ignore genuine conspiracies contrived against us.

Where are the Black Skeptics?