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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Modjeska Simkins, July 28, 1976. Interview G-0056-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Changing nature of leadership in the NAACP and criticism of organized religion

Simkins discusses the changing nature of leadership in the NAACP during the late 1940s, leading up to the legal assault on school segregation. According to Simkins, the new generation of leadership within the NAACP had grown weary of the lack of real change resulting from their efforts. As a result, they began to adopt a more direct plan of action. One byproduct of this change was their growing tendency to challenge and criticize the clergy for what Simkins describes as their general sense of apathy towards the civil rights movement. Her comments here are particularly revealing for their challenge to evidence that clergy often did take an active role in the movement. Nevertheless, Simkins argues that at least in Columbia, South Carolina, this was not the case and she expresses her growing disillusionment with organized religion as a result.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Modjeska Simkins, July 28, 1976. Interview G-0056-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACQUELYN HALL:
How do you account for this? It seems to me that this was a real increase in the willingness of the NAACP to take direct court action. The organization grew during this time right after World War II. How do you account for that take-off?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
Of that what?
JACQUELYN HALL:
It seemed like a real take-off point for the organization.
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
I think the type of leadership we got into the conference at the beginning, a different type of leadership, a different type of president we had and the determination of people who had been begging these different… You know they had these little Democratic clubs, just like they have these private clubs and they don't let Negroes and Jews come in. Well, they had these little political clubs running the same ways. The Negroes had just gotten tired of begging and appealing and asking for a playground and their taking the thing under consideration, or asking for police protection, or asking for lights. And you go up there and sit down and beg and appeal to them old cats, and then they say, "Well, we'll take it under consideration." And maybe that's the last you hear of it. They just got tired; they just figured that they were tired of begging, tired of appealing, just tired, you know, of being pushed around.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What happened to the older leadership? Was it a take-over of the organization by different leaders at this point?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
There was what might have been called a volatile state leadership. So when the state organization was founded there was a small core of determined people, and those people in the various areas who were weak-kneed, they just had to fall by the wayside. As Truman said, "If you can't stand the heat, get the hell out of the damned kitchen," see. So that's what some of them did: they got out of the kitchen. And we let it be known and said it broadly over all the state that we were not going to have anybody to jeopardize their positions or their lifestyles as they wanted to live it to join the movement, but we would try to annihilate them if they got in the way. All we'd say, in the words of the old spiritual, is "Just get out of the way and let the church roll on." And we handled some of them in a very cruel manner.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How is that?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
Well, we'd get up and talk about them, saying that they were people that were working against their own people, either were working against or were not interested; called theirnames, saying "There they are. They call themselves your leaders; and now we've got a chance to do something about this thing, where is he? What's your pastor doing? You feed him. If he can't work with you, starve him." I mean, we were cruel. We'd say, "What do you want? Here's a man telling you that Christ came—I mean we did all kinds of things—that you might have a more abundant life. You haven't had it. Now we're trying to work with you to get it, and he's telling you you can't meet in his church, or don't bother with that thing. What're you going to do with him? Are you going to feed him or are you going to starve him?" Just cruel. They got the message; it didn't take long for them to get it, didn't take long.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What kind of role do you think the preachers have played in the movement, generally?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
Well, I think in some places they've done salient service. Around Columbia here they gave little or no assistance; we never got very much out of them here in early times. We still don't. Every now and then one of them would light up kind of like you see a lightning bug light up at night, and that's it.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Do you think they've been a really negative, conservative force for the most part?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
I think they just don't give a damn. I don't think they're negative; I think they're just thinking about self. You see, the church as I know it (I'm talking about the black church here as I know it) has become mercenary. It's a racket; religion is a racket. They build churches, they have anniversaries, they have revivals this time of the year. They have revivals: one preacher'll go and preach there and get a big rake-off, he'll exchange with somebody else. And they become mercenaries, a kind of a religious mafia with no socio-community out-reach. Now I know they'll want to kill me for saying that, but that's just what I believe. And they know the way I think about it. The church could be a great leavening force; in fact, that's what it ought to be. But I don't see around here where it is. Now, I do know that in some cities (for instance in the Birmingham movement and in Montgomery) they showed it. But we had our state conference secretary's home fired in. Do you think they said anything? We had a woman bashed in the bust by a busdriver here, attacked on the bus, beat in the bosom. She could have gotten cancer for being where she was struck on the breast. Did any preacher tell the Negroes to walk like they did in Montgomery? No! No! So we've decided now there's no need to even bother with them. Just bypass them and go on and try to do what you're doing, because it's just not there. On the whole they've become a religious mafia, money's mercenary.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How long have you been alienated from the church in that way?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
Years; it's been years. I don't mean by that that I don't believe in the philosophy as given us by Christ. And I believe in living by that. But now I don't believe in the Christ that's preached to us, and I don't listen to it. You know, a long time ago when a noted missionary went into India, I don't remember now who it was but I remember the saying that one of the prominent people in India said: "We will accept your Christ but not your Christianity." Now that's what I mean. So I have lost faith in the institutionalized black church. Now I can't say what the white church is doing, but I do believe that on the whole, from what I can hear… Now I know they got those movements, you know, like old Moon and that bunch, you know (that's another mafia), but on the whole I think that, from what I can gather from what comes over the radio and TV, there must be a much more rounded program of church activities and all like that in the general white church. Most of the black churches are shut all the week. They go there on Sunday and warm the chairs about two hours. And the outreach programs are no good. I say every church ought to have an outreach, it ought to have a social activities program, a social welfare, social consciousness program or something like that where all of the benefits that can come from … say from government benefits, and how people who are ill can get care. A lot of people don't know, people that are very ill and have very limited incomes right here in Columbia don't know that right down the street here is where they can get health nursing service, you know. A lot of the churches ought to know that, ought to know how to tell people how to get food stamp benefits and Social Security supplements. Now the churches ought to be doing that. But a lot of these preachers don't give a damn whether they've got money to buy milk for the baby on Monday morning, just so they get their assessments on Sunday and get their salary on Sunday. That's what I'm talking about. So I've just become thoroughly disgusted. I'm not disillusioned, I'm just disgusted. I can just see further than some people. And don't think I'm alone: the mass as a whole is seeing this thing. They're some people that think if they don't go to church every Sunday they'll go to hell. But I'm not even worrying about whether there's a hell or not; hell doesn't worry me, and heaven doesn't either. I say I've lived every day and tried to do what I can in my way of thinking and following the philosophy and the teachings of Christ to do unto others as you desire they do unto you, and help those who can't help themselves. And I let heaven and hell take care of themselves; that's my philosophy.