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“I Ain’t Bowing Down to Them All the Time": African American Youth and Religion in the Generation before the Civil Rights Movement

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Abstract:

Jessie Henderson began his first preaching gig at age thirteen. A seasoned veteran in the pulpit by twenty, Henderson was grateful for the support of older preachers, but he recognized that “some is jealous because I’m young.” Although he was devoted to the church, Henderson acknowledged, “It’s mostly old folks that pay church a lot of attention.” Even Henderson had his reservations. He had worked most of his life as a sharecropper, and then joined the National Youth Administration in 1937, preaching in his spare time. Although he still aspired to be a fulltime preacher, Henderson also wanted economic independence. “I’m not inferior like lots of Negroes are to white folks,” he explained, “I ain’t bowing down to them all the time.” When asked which leaders he most admired, Henderson chose a local businessman and a black landowner who employed a white family on his farm. No clergy made the cut.
Jessie Henderson was one of hundreds of young African Americans who talked at length to interviewers about his attitudes toward religion, friendship, family, race, sex, marriage, and more in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Fisk University sociologist Charles S. Johnson compiled those interviews into Growing up in the Black Belt, a 1941 study of black youth in the rural South. Johnson’s report on “Youth and the Church” is brief, but the transcripts of the interviews reveal the complicated religious worlds of black young people in the Depression South. In one breath the youth complained, “I can’t understand what the preacher’s talkin’ about half of the time. Seems like to me he’s just sayin’ a lot of words that don’t make sense.” But in the next, they talked about singing in choirs, taking leadership roles in Sunday School classes and Bible Bands, and developing a new sense of self-worth when they “got religion.” Many young black southerners spoke of Christianity as empowering even as they scorned local church leaders, whom they often deemed excessively deferential and unwilling to question white authority.
This paper explores the religious worlds of black youth in the rural South at the end of the Great Depression. Responding to both the turmoil of the Depression and the hope inspired by the New Deal, southern youth in the 1930s questioned the value of deference to whites and expressed their admiration for community members who operated independently from white power structures. Rural preachers were often bi-vocational, many of them too poor to claim economic independence. Some youth ridiculed their messages and sought role models in business, politics, and entertainment rather than the church. At the same time, those youth remained active in church, often without pressure from parents. A quarter-century later, they watched a new generation of young people challenge the clerical leadership of the modern civil rights movement. Johnson’s Depression-era interviews reveal that the rebellion of this new generation was not so much a departure from their parents’ own youthful attitudes as an extension of them.
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Name: American Studies Association Annual Meeting
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http://www.theasa.net


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URL: http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p508657_index.html
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MLA Citation:

Greene, Alison. "“I Ain’t Bowing Down to Them All the Time": African American Youth and Religion in the Generation before the Civil Rights Movement" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hilton Baltimore, Baltimore, MD, <Not Available>. 2014-11-25 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p508657_index.html>

APA Citation:

Greene, A. C. "“I Ain’t Bowing Down to Them All the Time": African American Youth and Religion in the Generation before the Civil Rights Movement" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hilton Baltimore, Baltimore, MD <Not Available>. 2014-11-25 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p508657_index.html

Publication Type: Internal Paper
Abstract: Jessie Henderson began his first preaching gig at age thirteen. A seasoned veteran in the pulpit by twenty, Henderson was grateful for the support of older preachers, but he recognized that “some is jealous because I’m young.” Although he was devoted to the church, Henderson acknowledged, “It’s mostly old folks that pay church a lot of attention.” Even Henderson had his reservations. He had worked most of his life as a sharecropper, and then joined the National Youth Administration in 1937, preaching in his spare time. Although he still aspired to be a fulltime preacher, Henderson also wanted economic independence. “I’m not inferior like lots of Negroes are to white folks,” he explained, “I ain’t bowing down to them all the time.” When asked which leaders he most admired, Henderson chose a local businessman and a black landowner who employed a white family on his farm. No clergy made the cut.
Jessie Henderson was one of hundreds of young African Americans who talked at length to interviewers about his attitudes toward religion, friendship, family, race, sex, marriage, and more in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Fisk University sociologist Charles S. Johnson compiled those interviews into Growing up in the Black Belt, a 1941 study of black youth in the rural South. Johnson’s report on “Youth and the Church” is brief, but the transcripts of the interviews reveal the complicated religious worlds of black young people in the Depression South. In one breath the youth complained, “I can’t understand what the preacher’s talkin’ about half of the time. Seems like to me he’s just sayin’ a lot of words that don’t make sense.” But in the next, they talked about singing in choirs, taking leadership roles in Sunday School classes and Bible Bands, and developing a new sense of self-worth when they “got religion.” Many young black southerners spoke of Christianity as empowering even as they scorned local church leaders, whom they often deemed excessively deferential and unwilling to question white authority.
This paper explores the religious worlds of black youth in the rural South at the end of the Great Depression. Responding to both the turmoil of the Depression and the hope inspired by the New Deal, southern youth in the 1930s questioned the value of deference to whites and expressed their admiration for community members who operated independently from white power structures. Rural preachers were often bi-vocational, many of them too poor to claim economic independence. Some youth ridiculed their messages and sought role models in business, politics, and entertainment rather than the church. At the same time, those youth remained active in church, often without pressure from parents. A quarter-century later, they watched a new generation of young people challenge the clerical leadership of the modern civil rights movement. Johnson’s Depression-era interviews reveal that the rebellion of this new generation was not so much a departure from their parents’ own youthful attitudes as an extension of them.


Similar Titles:
The Civil Rights Movement and American Civil Religion

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Did the Civil Rights Movement Impact the Delinquency Rates of African-American Youth?


 
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