The Role of the Church(es) in the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. and 'Solidarity' in Poland: Expectations, Divisions, Engagement, and Its Consequences

headshot of Paulina

Paulina Napierala
Jagiellonian University

Date: Thursday, January 26, 2023
Time: 12 - 1:15pm    
Location: Boisi Center, 24 Quincy Road

RSVP Required



The Black Church played a significant role in Black American history. For a long time, it was a source of Black culture as well as political leadership. The Civil Rights movement was both a socio-political movement of protest and a religious movement, sustained by the religious power of Black churches. For the Poles, due to the turbulent history, religion (in this case, Roman Catholicism) was also important and was almost always involved in politics. During the partition of Poland, the Church acted as a chief guardian and repository of Polish values and protector against the oppressors. During the time of communism, the Church was involved in the struggle for democratic change. It was long seen as the only independent institution. And although the history of Poles and African Americans cannot be equated in any way, there are some parallels concerning the role that the church(es) assumed in the history of these two groups, especially during the important protest movements.

In this colloquium, Paulina Napierala will compare the forms of the church(es)’ involvement in these protest movements as well as the theological and political divisions within the church(es) concerning the scope of engagement and/or cooperation with the government. Napierala will also analyze the conditions in which it is possible for churches to get involved in such activities and to what extent their involvement has been desired or accepted by society. The last part of the presentation will touch upon the consequences of such engagement, the positions that the church(es) assumed in the post-protest reality, and the contemporary expectations of the social role of the church(es) in democratic societies.

Speaker Bio

Headshot of Paulina Napaierala

Dr. Paulina Napierała holds a Ph.D. in political science (Jagiellonian University, 2011) as well as two M.A. degrees: in International Relations (JU, 2005) and in Ethnic and Migration Studies (JU, 2006). Her research explores a variety of issues concerning the role of religion in American politics. She authored In God We Trust. Religia w sferze publicznej USA (“In God We Trust: Religion in the American Public Sphere”) and Religia i polityka w USA. Faith-based initiatives w okresie prezydentury G. W. Busha (“Religion and Politics in the United States: Faith-Based Initiatives During the Administration of George W. Bush”). She also edited two volumes on American society and published in Polish and international journals. Currently, Napierała is focusing on the social and political role of the Black Church. Apart from working on a book concerning theological divisions and the evolution of the Black Church’s socio-political engagement, she is also editing a volume for the Peter Lang Publishing House entitled: Religion and American Politics. Domestic and International Contexts (in cooperation with American and European authors). She was a grantee of the Kosciuszko Foundation (2015) and the Fulbright Commission (2007-2008) which let her conduct research and consultations at the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, Boston College, Harvard Divinity School, and Harvard Kennedy School. She also received scholarships and grants from: the National Science Center Poland, the Institute for Human Sciences, ‘IWM' in Vienna, and the Free University of Berlin. From August 2022 to January 2023, Napierała was a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Advanced Research Collaborative, CUNY Graduate Center. She is a managing editor of “Ad Americam. Journal of American Studies.” 

Read More

Napierała, Paulina. "The American Religious Right and James Dobson's "Family Values Empire”.”  Ad Americam 14, (2013): 113-138,164.

__________."Black Churches and their Attitudes to the Social Protest in the Civil Rights Era: Obedience, Civil Disobedience and Black Liberation Theology." Studia Migracyjne--Przegląd Polonijny (2020): 247-79.

 __________. "Christian: The Politics of a Word in America." Political Theology 20, no. 8 (December 2019): 691-692.

__________. In God We Trust: Religion in the American Public Sphere. Krakow: Księgarnia Akademicka, 2015.

__________. Religion and Politics in the United States: Faith-Based Initiatives During the Administration of George W. Bush. Krakow: Jagiellonian University Press, 2013.

Felak, James Ramon. The Pope in Poland: The Pilgrimages of John Paul II, 1979-1991. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020.

Huener, Jonathan. The Polish Catholic Church Under German Occupation: The Reichsgau Wartheland, 1939-1945. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2021.

Kosicki, Piotr H. Vatican II Behind the Iron Curtain. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2016.

Nelsen, Hart M, and Nelsen, Anne Kusener. Black Church in the Sixties. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1975.

Włodarski, Szczepan. The Origin and Growth of the Polish National Catholic Church. Scranton, PA: Polish National Catholic Church, 1974.

In the News

The Detroit Catholic’s article, “In a turn of history, Poland is country that will miss German pope the most,” makes clear the importance of Catholicism in Poland, particularly in light of its geographical location and history of foreign affairs. While Poland has always been understood as Catholic–as Paulina Napierala clarifies in her discussion–the relationship between Poland and the Catholic Church is dynamic. The article regarding Poland’s recent mourning of Pope Benedict XVI and Napierala’s presentation about the historical relationship between the Catholic Church, the government, and the country’s people in Communist Poland showcase influences for the relationship between Poland and the Catholic Church. 

photo of Paulina Napaierala during her presentation

Paulina Napierala giving her presentation during a luncheon colloquium at the Boisi Center.

photo of Paulina Napaierala during her presentation
photo of Paulina Napaierala during her presentation

Photo Credits: Christopher Soldt, MTS

Paulina Napierała, formerly a visiting scholar at the Boisi Center, shared an insightful presentation drawing connections between the roles and responses of Black Churches during the American Civil Rights Movement and the Catholic Church during communist Poland. Napierała began by outlining the contexts of both relationships, particularly the historical church influences in Poland–informed by her own Polish heritage. The key aspects Napierała highlighted from Polish Catholic history were its geographic location and the resulting occupations that compromised Poland's government–and, therefore, its independence–and required that the Church take up the role as keeper of Polish culture. She used this context to describe the Polish people's, the Catholic Church's, and Communism's relationship, particularly involving the Solidarity movement. As she illustrated, Catholic and the Catholic Church’s responses were far from uniform toward their oppression, but rather were a plurality of responses–some more aggressively liberationist while others were more conciliatory or even complicit in the Communist regime.

Due to the similar social contexts–without ignoring important distinctions–Napierała presented the response to the Civil Rights Movement by the Black Churches as similar to those of the Catholic Church and the Catholics of Poland. One distinction she noted was that the Catholic Church and Catholic Poles were a majority, while, in comparison, the Civil Rights Movement focused on a movement for the nation’s minority. Rather than focus on this contextual difference, Napierała highlighted the similar response by Black Churches; that is, some were militantly against the “rabble-rousing” they perceived Martin Luther King, Jr. and other movement leaders to be instigating, while others were sympathetic to the cause and took extreme measures to risk their lives to accompany those activists in their efforts. 

Napierała spent much time describing Poland and America's social, political, and historical contexts that informed their respective movements and the participation in and/or responses to them. One interesting conclusion she drew was that, despite this plurality of response and involvement by some churches to either the Solidarity Movement or the Civil Rights Movement, many of those communities now claim that they had a significant hand in the particular movements. Those Black Churches that once disparaged King and his followers now claim to have played an outsized role in the Civil Rights Movement, and Catholic Poles now also claim to have been a unified anti-Communist voice during their own struggles. History, Napierała concludes, provides a significantly different view. 

Audience questions followed Napierała's presentation, exploring King's studies and the impact of the concept of social/structural sin, Niebuhr's influence on King and the role of coercion for good, and Pope John Paul II's influence on Catholic Poland and its self-image.