Kerry Pimblott

  • Fellowship year:2011-2012
  • University: University of Illinois Urbana Champaign
  • Dissertation Topic/Category: United States
  • Dissertation Title: Soul Power: The Black Church and the Black Power Movement in Cairo, Illinois, 1969-1974
  • This dissertation seeks to restore the centrality of religion to the social movements of the 1960s by focusing on the relationship between African-American Christianity and the Black Power movement. The dissertation identifies an important moment in time and seeks to analyze the process of change, the bread-and-butter of historians: how were the religious dynamics of the civil rights movement affected by the shift to Black Power during the late 1960s? In addition to the standard historian’s reliance on government and local documents, this dissertation includes the significant component of oral history and challenges the existing accounts of Black Power that characterize a movement marked by a profound de-Christianization which rejected Christian discourse and jettisoned the organizational significance of the Black church. The dissertation uses as a case study the city of Cairo, Illinois, and uses it as a window onto the broader phenomenon of the interrelationship of the civil rights movement, Black Liberation theology, and the Black Power movement. It argues that the Black church played a sustained and pivotal role in the Black Power Movement. Moreover, it was in Cairo, Illinois, the city identified by many contemporaries as the site of the nation’s “longest protracted struggle” for racial justice that activists within Cairo’s leading Black Power organization, the United Front, reworked and built upon the religious discourses and institutions that had anchored a coherent movement culture, unifying ideology and access to the Black church’s tremendous organizational resources. The dissertation provides an original and sustained analysis of the character, extent, and significance of the involvement and influence of African-American Christian discourses on movement mobilization. Its focus on a site outside of the American South contributes to the newest research on the civil rights movement that documents a national rather than a regional struggle. By demonstrating the vitality of the connection between the Black church and the Black Power movement, this dissertation furthers a broader reassessment of the relationship between the Black church and the Black Power movement at a national level.