Prayers from African Americans in History
Historically, African-American people have been known to be very spiritual. From the old negro spirituals sung during slavery, to using prayer as a catalyst for divine intervention during the civil rights movement, spirituality and spiritual practice have shaped the lives of many African Americans, from the troubled past to our hopeful present.
Click through our gallery of prayers from major figures in African-American history, such as Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Duke Ellington, and Sojourner Truth.
Sojourner Truth: "Do For Me God"
Oh, God, you know I have no money, but you can make the
people do for me, and you must make the people do for me. I will
never give you peace till you do, God.
The indefatigable Sojourner Truth, the former slave who became outspoken in her defense of human dignity, often spoke to God in a no-nonsense way. She believed that if she was to do God’s work on earth, Divine Providence should be with her each step of the way.
Harriet Tubman: "Unconditional Affirmation"
I’m going to hold steady on You, an’ You’ve got to see me
This ejaculation was recited regularly by Harriet Tubman when she led runaway slaves to freedom in the North. The nineteenth century “Moses,” herself having been enslaved, never lost a person along the Underground Railroad and attributed her success to her deep belief in God. She would say this prayer just as she began to engineer one of her daring escapes.
W.E.B DuBois: "Give Us Grace"
Give us grace, O God, to dare to do the deed which we well know
cries to be done. Let us not hesitate because of ease, or the
words of men’s mouths, or our own lives. Mighty causes are
calling us—the freeing of women, the training of children, the
putting down of hate and murder and poverty—all these and
more. But they call with voices that mean work and sacrifices
and death. Mercifully grant us, O God, the spirit of Esther, that
we say: I will go unto the King and if I perish, I perish.
Educator and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois became the first African American to receive a doctorate from Harvard. An agnostic for much of his life, he nonetheless wrote dozens of exquisite spiritual entreaties. In this prayer he recalls the Old Testament figure of Esther, who daringly confronts her husband, King Xerxes, and demands that he overturn his court’s order to kill all the Jews of the Persian Empire.
Malcolm X: "Prayer to Allah"
I submit to no one but Thee, O Allah, I submit to no one but
Thee. I submit to Thee because Thou hast no partner. All praise
and blessings come from Thee, and Thou art alone in Thy
This prayer, which stems from the teachings of the Koran, has had some significance in recent U.S. history. To Malcolm X, who was an avowed racist for a good portion of his adult life, it became the catalyst for his personal conversion. On a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964, he witnessed tens of thousands of Muslims, including “blond-haired, blue-eyed men I could call my brothers,” reciting these words, and he realized that he could no longer adhere to his prejudices.
Mary McLeod Bethune: "Symphony of Life"
Father, we call Thee Father because we love Thee. We are glad to
be called Thy children, and to dedicate our lives to the service
that extends through willing hearts and hands to the betterment
of all mankind. We send a cry of Thanksgiving for people of all
races, creeds, classes, and colors the world over, and pray that
through the instrumentality of our lives the spirit of peace, joy,
fellowship, and brotherhood shall circle the world. We know that
this world is filled with discordant notes, but help us, Father, to
so unite our efforts that we may all join in one harmonious
symphony for peace and brotherhood, justice, and equality of
opportunity for all men. The tasks performed today with
forgiveness for all our errors, we dedicate, dear Lord, to Thee.
Grant us strength and courage and faith and humility sufficient
for the tasks assigned to us.
Born into a family of seventeen children whose parents had once been slaves, Mary McLeod Bethune became one of the most indefatigable voices for global equality and understanding in the immediate years before and after World War II. She was a self-assured educator, activist, and columnist and found in prayer one of life’s great comforts. Here she expresses her firm belief in the beauty of diversity throughout the world.
Duke Ellington: "The Duke's Prayer"
In the last years of his life, musician and composer Duke Ellington realized that his time was short and he regretted that he had not fully conveyed in his music his deeply held spirituality. In his quest to add to his legacy, he wrote a series of ecumenical pieces that became part of his Sacred Concerts. In his last Christmas card to his friends, he personally designed this prayer as a personal expression of God’s inextricable love for mankind.
Frederick Douglass: "In Search of Freedom"
You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in
my chains and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle
gale and I sadly before the bloodywhip! You are freedom’s
swift-winged angels that fly round the world; I am confined in
bands of iron! O that I were free! O, that I were on one of your
gallant decks, and under your protecting wing! Alas! Betwixt me
and you, the turbid waters roll. Go on, go on. O that I could also
go! Could I but swim! If I could fly! O, whywas I born a man, of
whom to make a brute! The glad ship is gone; she hides in the
dim distance. I am left in the hottest hell of unending slavery. O
God, save me! God deliver me! Let me be free! Is there any God?
Why am I a slave? I will run away. I will not stand it. Get caught,
or get clear. I’ll try it. I had as well die with ague as the fever. I
have only one life to lose. I had as well be killed running as die
standing. Only think of it; one hundred miles straight north, and
I am free! Yes! God helping me, I will.
Through prayer and introspection, Frederick Douglass tried to make sense of his enslavement on a Maryland plantation. This piece, calling out to God for deliverance, was taken from his riveting autobiography published seven years after his escape to freedom.
Paul Laurence Dunbar: "A Prayer"
O LORD, the hard-won miles
Have worn my stumbling feet:
Oh, soothe me with thy smiles,
And make my life complete.
The thorns were thick and keen
Where’er I trembling trod;
The way was long between
My wounded feet and God.
Where healing waters flow
Do thou my footsteps lead.
My heart is aching so;
Thy gracious balm I need.
The son of ex-slaves and a classmate of aviation pioneer Orville Wright, Paul Laurence Dunbar was the first African American to gain widespread fame as a poet. His ability to use different conversational dialects made his works accessible to a vast audience. This particular prayer was written as a personal retrospection not long before he died at the age of thirty-four, in 1906, from tuberculosis.
Coretta Scott King: "A Public Prayer for Divine Perspective"
Eternal and everlasting God, who art the Father of all mankind,
as we turn aside from the hurly-burly of everyday living, may
our hearts and souls, yea our very spirits, be lifted upward to
Thee, for it is from Thee that all blessing cometh. Keep us ever
mindful of our dependence upon Thee, for without Thee our
efforts are but naught. We pray for Thy divine guidance as we
travel the highways of life. We pray for more courage. We pray
for more faith and above all we pray for more love.
May we somehow come to understand the true meaning of Thy
love as revealed to us in the life, death and resurrection of Thy
son and our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ. May the Cross ever
remind us of Thy great love, for greater love no man hath given.
This is our supreme example, O God. Maywe be constrained to
follow in the name and spirit of Jesus, we pray.
Coretta Scott King, the wife of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., wrote her own spiritual essays and prayers attesting to her abiding faith in God. Her spiritual horizons expanded dramatically during her marriage and throughout her life-changing experiences in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and early 1960s, when she composed this piece.
George Washington Carver: "Upon Seeing a Sunset"
O God, I thank Thee for such direct manifestation of Thy
goodness, majesty, and power!
Inventor, scientist, and social activist George Washington Carver believed that human knowledge and the hand of God were inextricably linked. While one could not test a personal relationship with God to the satisfaction of individuals through human quantification, he believed in the existence of an Almighty and that Divine Providence had a plan for everyone. In composing this simple expression of thanksgiving, Carver was recording his reactions in witnessing a spectacular sunset not far from his laboratory at Tuskegee University in Alabama.