“Growing up black, you are awash in religion,” said Cheryl Purnell, a member of the Black Nonbelievers of Chicago. “We’re seen as dangerous, like we’re going to poison someone’s mind.” It is well known that Rev. Dr, Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders of the civil rights movement drew heavily on religious language and ideas in their fight for equality. African Americans were, and remain, one of the most religious demographics in the United States. But A. Philip Randolph, the chief strategist behind the 1963 march on Washington and once called “the most dangerous black in America,” did not believe in God.
The much-overlooked role of atheists in the civil rights movement was the topic of Thursday night’s talk with Kimberly Veal, executive director of the Black Nonbelievers of Chicago (BNOC). Veal paid homage to Randolph and other non-religious activists who contributed immensely to the cause despite their lack of piety. Among these non-believers are three early leaders of the NAACP: W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter White, and Roy Wilkins. Though the church was the staging ground for many rallies in the 1960s, this was not necessarily because the leaders were religiously motivated. The church, Veal says, was a central locale in African-American neighborhoods, and “the only place where police would leave them alone.”
Even today, it’s not easy to be a non-believer in the black community. Purnell and Veal both spoke of “coming out” as atheists, and emphasized the parallel between the fight for tolerance in the black–non-believer community and the gay community. “Both are things you can’t tell from 50 feet away. But when I came out, there were members of my family who stopped taking to me,” Purnell reflected. Indeed, one of the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement was Dr. King’s mentor and friend, Bayard Rustin, who was openly gay.
The BNOC’s mission is to provide a support network for nonbelievers to discuss their experiences without fear of rejection, as well as to encourage dialogue between non-believers and believers in the black community. They are also engaged in a number of charity projects, including work with local food pantries, as Veal hopes to offer alternatives for social justice work outside of the church.
“Just because we don’t believe in God doesn’t mean we’re anti-theists,” says Purnell. “We respect religious people—there just needs to be more conversation.”