Renowned scholar C. Eric Lincoln (1924-2000) grew up in Athens, Limestone County. During his career, Lincoln authored, co-authored, or edited 20 books and more than 150 articles about the African American experience. In addition to his scholarly works, Lincoln published a novel, The Avenue, Clayton City (1988), based in part on his experiences growing up in racially segregated Athens.
Charles Eric Lincoln was born on June 23, 1924. By the time he was four, his mother, Bradonia Lincoln, had married Ernest Blye and moved to Pittsburgh, and his father had moved to Nashville, Tennessee. Lincoln remained in Athens, where he was raised by his maternal grandparents Mattie Sowell Lincoln and Charles Less Lincoln. As a child, Lincoln worked at odd jobs to help with family finances; when he was 13, his grandfather became gravely ill, and Lincoln picked cotton to help support the family. In Coming Through the Fire (1996), Lincoln describes being brutally beaten when he questioned the amount of money he received for 40 pounds of cotton, an experience he never forgot.
Lincoln graduated as valedictorian in May 1939 from Trinity High School in Athens; his high school principal, J. T. Wright, loaned Lincoln $50 to buy a suit and a one-way ticket to Chicago. However, when Lincoln arrived in Chicago, he discovered that racial prejudice and discrimination were not exclusive to the South. He worked during the day and took night classes at the University of Chicago. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Lincoln tried to enlist in the Navy but was refused enlistment because of his race. Two years later, he was drafted and served in the Navy until the war ended in 1945.
That year, he moved to Memphis and attended LeMoyne College (now LeMoyne-Owen College) and in 1947 received his bachelor's degree. Between 1947 and 1950, Lincoln worked numerous jobs, including serving as road manager for the Birmingham Black Barons baseball team. During his tenure, the team signed future Hall of Famer and fellow Alabamian Willie Mays.
In 1954, Lincoln received his master's degree from Fisk University in Nashville. For the next 11 years, he held various positions, both academic and administrative, at Clark College (now Clark-Atlanta University) in Atlanta. In 1956, he received his divinity degree from the University of Chicago and in 1957 was ordained as a Methodist minister. Sometime before 1960, Lincoln married; the couple had two children but divorced before 1961. By 1960, Lincoln had completed both a master's degree and a doctorate from Boston University. In 1961, he married Lucy Cook and with her had two more children.
In the 1960s, Lincoln published The Black Muslims in America (1961), a seminal work on the history of the Nation of Islam that was credited with bringing black Muslims in America out of the shadows. The New York Times reported that the book was unsurpassed as a sociological study. From 1962 to 1972, Lincoln served as adjunct or visiting professor at several American colleges and universities, including Portland State College (now Portland State University, Oregon), Union Theological Seminary (New York City), and Fordham University (New York City). During this period, he published five more books, including My Face is Black (1964), in which he offered readers a stark analysis of racism and civil rights in the United States.
In 1970, Lincoln became the founding president of the Black Academy of Letters. Three years later, he returned to Fisk as Professor of Religion and of Sociology and also as chairman of the Department of Religion and Philosophical Studies. In 1976, Lincoln accepted a position at Duke University as Professor of Religion and Culture and taught there until his retirement in 1993. In 1991, he was named the William R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Religion and Culture.
Lincoln's health began to decline in the 1980s, and he was diagnosed with diabetes. Although the disease affected his eyesight, it did not affect his productivity. He published another landmark work, Race, Religion and the Continuing American Dilemma (1984), which examined the contradictions between the American religious ideals of love and brotherhood and the betrayal of those ideals in many areas of American life. Lincoln's failing eyesight forced him to restrict his teaching duties at Duke, but in early 1987 he wrote, in just 60 days, The Avenue, Clayton City (1988), a novel dedicated to his friend and fellow civil rights author Alex Haley; it won the Lillian Smith Award for Best Southern Fiction in 1988 as well as the International Black Writers' Alice Browning Award in 1989.
In the final decade of his life, despite ill health, Lincoln continued to write, lecture, and publish. In addition to This Road Since Freedom, Lincoln also co-authored The Black Church in the African-American Experience (1990). In 1990, he received a citation from Pope John Paul II for his scholarly contribution to the church. In 1996, Lincoln published his most personal work, Coming Through the Fire: Surviving Race and Place in America, a searing analysis of the contemporary meanings of race and color in which he argued that all people are basically the same with the same vulnerabilities, the same possibilities, and the same need for God and each other. In this book, as in his other works, he makes a plea for "no-fault reconciliation," urging all people to embrace their shared humanity and work together for the greater good.
C. Eric Lincoln died on May 14, 2000, at the age of 75 in Durham, North Carolina.
Selected Writings by C. Eric Lincoln
The Black Muslims in America (1961)
My Face is Black (1964)
Martin Luther King Jr.: A Profile (1969)
The Black Church since Frazier (1974)
The Avenue: Clayton City (1988)
The Black Church in the African-American Experience (1990, with Lawrence H. Mamiya)
Coming Through the Fire: Surviving Race and Place in America (1996)
Flora, Joseph M., Amber Vogel, and Bryan Albin Giemza. Southern Writers: A New Biographical Dictionary. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.
Rasmussen, R. Kent, ed. The African American Encyclopedia. 2d rev. ed. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 2001.
Penne J. Laubenthal
Athens State University
Published June 7, 2011
Last updated June 14, 2011