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From MLK to today, the March on Washington highlights the evolution of activism by Black churches

In the decades before and after 1963, Black churches and denominations have had diverse priorities and political approaches

Martin Luther King
American civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta Scott King lead a black voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery, in 1965.William Lovelace (Getty Images)

The March on Washington of 1963 is remembered most for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech — and thus as a crowning moment for the long-term civil rights activism of what is sometimes referred to as the “Black Church.”

At the march, King indeed represented numerous other Black clergy who were his colleagues in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But the march was the product of sustained activism by a broader coalition. Black and white labor leaders, as well as white clergy, played pivotal roles over many months ahead of the event.

Moreover, the Black Church was not monolithic then — nor is it now. Many Black pastors and their congregations steered clear of civil disobedience and other nonviolent confrontational tactics in the civil rights era, just as some now steer clear of the Black Lives Matter movement and shun progressive Black pastors’ engagement on behalf of abortion rights and LGBTQ+ rights.

“The issues are multiracial. It’s too simplistic now to say, “Black church/white church,’” said the Rev. William Barber, who in 2018 became co-chair of a national anti-poverty initiative called The Poor People’s Campaign. It took its name from a movement launched by King and other SCLC leaders in 1968 shortly before King’s assassination.

Barber, now director of the Center for Public Theology and Public Policy at Yale Divinity School, admires King immensely yet is critical of those who “water down the March on Washington to one man, one speech.”

“That’s a political strategy to undermine the purpose of mass protest,” he said. “It must be a mass movement, not just a mass moment.

Barber said the new manifestation of the Poor People’s Campaign has drawn active support from thousands of clergy of different races and faiths.

“There are Jews, Quakers, some predominantly white congregations that are pro-civil rights and pro-LGBT community — that care about immigrants and women’s rights and voting rights,” he said. “Any efforts today that are not engaging all these issues on an every day basis is not truly moving in the spirit of the March on Washington.”

In the decades before and after 1963, Black churches and denominations have had diverse priorities and political approaches.

Many Black faith leaders in the early 1900s supported Booker T. Washington’s call for Black progress to occur through education and economic self-sufficiency, rather than through direct challenges to segregation laws. In later decades, self-sufficiency was touted by the Nation of Islam as part of its advocacy of Black Nationalism. Some other Black pastors — notably Father Divine and Reverend Ike — became wealthy with optimistic promises of heaven-on-earth prosperity for their followers.

Currently, there are large numbers of Black pastors in two different categories, according to Robert Franklin, professor of moral leadership at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. Some of them, Franklin says, engage energetically in social-justice activism, envisioning themselves as “prophetic radicals” in the tradition of King.

Others have a more conservative, individualistic outlook, Franklin said. “They are a little mushy on the activism and the risk-taking.”

“In many respects, they have declared victory, purchased their own buildings,” he said. “There are fewer prophetic sermons and more concern with institutional maintenance. ‘How to do we keep the lights on, pay the bills.’”

One notable trend in recent decades has been a rise in the number of multiracial congregations across the country. King’s former church in Atlanta, Ebenezer Baptist Church, is among them, drawing increasing numbers of white and Hispanic worshippers.

Barber suggested King would be pleased by that.

“Dr. King was fighting for the beloved community which included all people regardless of race,” Barber said. “He brought in everybody from different faiths and traditions.”

In New York City, one of the oldest Protestant churches, Middle Collegiate Church, is now a politically progressive, thoroughly multiethnic congregation. Its senior minister, the Rev. Jacqui Lewis, is a Black woman proud to be carrying on her family’s tradition of civil rights activism.

“There’s something in our blood that will never release us from our responsibility to make heaven here on earth,” she said.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s “was not just Black male clergy in the south,” she said. “It was women who decided to march and not get on the buses (during the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56 ). It was white people who decided to pick up Black people in their cars and drive them to work. All the everyday, ordinary people who participated in this southern freedom movement.”

Lewis agreed that the “Black Church” — as an umbrella term — may be of limited use now.

“Let’s look at ‘Black faith’ instead,” she said. “It’s both inside and outside the church. ‘Black Church’ is standing in the streets for abortion rights, for immigrants. If there are two Black people in the streets chanting ‘We shall overcome,’ that’s ‘Black Church.’”

It is perhaps a sign of the times that there is no single faith-based group listed among the organizations serving as co-chairs of the 60th Anniversary of the March on Washington that will be celebrated on Aug. 26. Among the co-chairs are the NAACP, the National Urban League, the Anti-Defamation League and Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

However, the nation’s six largest historically Black denominations — partners in the Conference of National Black Churches — will be participating in the anniversary events.

“The Black Church was the foundation of the Civil Rights Movement, which is why we are resolved to play a continued role in the fight for equality,” said the CNBC board. “While we have made strides over the decades, recent events threatened to impact the right to vote, to quality education, and to good-paying jobs. The COVID-19 pandemic was a reminder that we have a long way to go, in so many aspects of life, as we strive for equality and justice.”

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