Greater involvement of black churches could increase the success of liberal activism
This combination of liberal politicians unwilling to alienate non-religious constituencies, young activists viewing the black church as part of a bygone era of civil rights, and sometimes churches themselves offering ambiguous messages, means that the resources of the Church are untapped. This leaves activists without a crucial support system that could help advance some of their demands.
The modern black church basically began in 1794 when Bishop Richard Allen, along with other Christians, protested the segregation of black members into the white Methodist church in Philadelphia. In rebellion, they formed the First African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). In the early 1800s, the establishment of black churches and schools was a priority for African-American communities, as whites continued to deny them access to or participation in conventional institutions. Black churches have made it possible for African Americans to rely less on white institutions while providing a base for activists who fight racism and inequality.
This multifaceted role of black churches continued throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, with churches teaching social and political engagement alongside religious principles. These churches cultivated black leadership on both sides of the pulpit; ministers became representatives of their communities and church members organized against social injustice.
The continued exclusion of black Christians from white churches fueled the growth of black churches. Beginning in 1916, the Great Migration – in which millions of black Southerners moved to northern, midwestern, and western states in hopes of finding better jobs, housing, and respite against virulent racism – has only increased this segregation. Too many whites were uncomfortable with the growing number of African Americans flooding the cities. Migrants expanded black congregations and brought with them a different style of religious worship. It was “more moving and intense”, notes Giles Wright.
This “southern” style of worship would inform many church services in developing northern cities, displeased some black worshipers who wanted the worship to remain “respectable”. Their conservative mindset contributed to the black church’s growing reputation—particularly among a younger generation—as an institution that shied away from pertinent social justice issues. There was some truth in this perception. Prior to World War II, for example, some local black clergy, believing that having a job was the primary concern, largely ignored the concerns of young African-American workers about unfair labor practices.
However, this reputation for passivity did not really reflect reality. Although the credit for civil rights protests and legal advances often went to secular organizations, the black church remained at the center of social and political battles. Secular organizations may have been at the forefront, particularly in legal matters concerning segregation, but the black church provided crucial support and groundwork through leaders such as the Reverend Joseph A. DeLaine of South Carolina, who led protests contributing to the Brown v. Board of Education decision.
During World War II, social protest and community outreach took center stage in many black churches, as they saw demands for community service and civil rights as one and the same. This trend brought many African Americans into the civil rights movement. While figures such as King, CT Vivian and Fred Shuttlesworth rose to prominence as the movement exploded into national consciousness in the 1950s and 1960s, lesser-known participants in the movement’s most high-profile battles – from the bus boycott of Montgomery in 1955 at the Selma-to-Montgomery of 1965 steps – were also members of a black church or depended on the Church for vision and guidance.
Pressure on lawmakers, church-led activism, and outspoken support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 helped bring these laws to the books. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson recognized the contributions of religious leaders, signing the Voting Rights Act alongside King and future Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.), himself an ordained Baptist minister. . Rather than abandon activism after these groundbreaking laws were passed, in some places, such as San Francisco, the black church expanded its activism to include gay rights issues.
The 1970s presented some challenges for the black church. Black Muslims, for example, rejected Christianity as the white man’s religion, while leftists saw the church as anti-intellectual. And some black power advocates saw church teachings of turning the other cheek as counterproductive to social transformation.
But Reverend James Hal Cone came out with two key books, ‘A Black Theology of Liberation’ (1970) and “God of the Oppressed” (1975) which inspired black clergy to redouble their efforts in activism. “Any message that is not related to the liberation of the poor in a society is not the message of Christ. Any theology indifferent to the theme of liberation is not Christian theology,” Cone wrote.
This activism took on new prominence in the 1980s when Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush cut federal funding for local community enterprises and nonprofits, limiting the outreach activities of many secular organizations. In 1981, Reagan recommended a temporary solution to homelessness – places of worship would welcome families on welfare. The decision forced black churches to step in, supporting their wider communities through pantries, shelter programs and employment services.
This role of the black church as the beating heart of black activism and organizing has remained stable in the 21st century. Even though the Black Lives Matter movement emerged amid the rise of social media and digital technology that provided new organizing tools, the movement still relied on the Black Church as its hub. After the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., St. John’s Church in St. Louis became a key meeting place, providing a space to channel outrage into action. St. John’s senior pastor, the Reverend Michelle Higgins, continues to lead or participate in activist organizations today, including the Election Justice Project and Faith for Justice, which connects black churches with black-led activist movements .
And Higgins is no exception. The Reverend Justin Schroeder of the First Universalist Church in Minneapolis, for example, publicly declared his support for protesters who shut down the Mall of America in 2014, one of a wave of protests over grand juries’ refusal to indict police officers who had killed unarmed black men.
Reverend William Barber co-founded the Poor People’s Campaign with Reverend Liz Theoharis, which highlights the plight of the working poor in the United States by addressing systemic racism, poverty, environmental damage and military spending. This effort reflects King’s late 1960s emphasis on economic justice, largely forgotten due to his radicalism.
Despite the church’s powerful and continuing historical legacy, liberals often overlook the potential benefits of partnering with the black church. That’s partly because of some churches’ lukewarm support for politicians who lean too far to the left. And it’s also practical: The Pew Research Center found that a majority of liberals who identify as black are Christian, but only a minority are observant. Yet policy makers ignore this institution at their peril; the black church is responsible for many achievements in civil rights and economic justice during the 19th and 20th centuries and remains guided by the biblical belief that “whoever knows what to do and does not do it, ‘is sin for him’ (James 4:17).
Sustained activism also offers a possible solution to declining black church attendance. While African Americans still more often identify as religious than whites or Latinos, fewer identify as “affiliated with a religion.” Focusing on social justice might particularly appeal to young Black Americans who tend to be engaged in sociopolitical issues. Building on this legacy could strengthen the black church today and highlight its role as a potentially powerful ally in the new civil rights movement.