From the tragic 1955 death of Emmett Till to the Montgomery bus boycott to civil rights battles of the 1960s and even to the issues of unequal justice in 2014, civil rights leaders say the Black Church has remained a headquarters for healing, rejuvenation and planning.
“It remains our oasis in the desert. It remains our spiritual reservoir. It remains the most independent organization controlled by Black people. It even owns the most land,” says civil rights leader, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. “It is the biggest source of stability in our community.”
As political division continues and economic crisis cause pressure on families, the Sunday morning service is still a refuge, agrees Rev. C. T. Vivian, a foot soldier for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who now serves as interim president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
“We were in situations where we were worthless to the people who were working us and to the people who so-called ‘owned’ us,” Vivian said. “And the only place we reached for solace and understanding and to give our lives meaning was inside our religious life, our spiritual life.”
The church was also a base for professional skills and training, Vivian recalled. “It was the place where we learned about money and about property. All of these things that would move our people forward, we learned in the church.”
But, some religious leaders say many churches have lost the passion they once had for social justice issues and could use a revival of sorts.
“I think the church is not as dynamic and as active as it used to be and I regret that,” says the Rev. Joseph Lowery, SCLC co-founder, often called the “dean of the civil rights movement.” But, he added, “I think there’s still many churches, particularly those with activist preachers who are applying the rubber to the road, who are trying to apply the moral and spiritual imperatives of our faith to the social and civic problems.”
On Martin Luther King National Holiday 2014, Lowery was set to preach at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was baptized, ordained and where he co-pastored alongside his father. It was also where one of his funerals took place on April 9, 1968.
Elder Bernice King, his youngest daughter who is also an ordained minister, believes many churches – Black and White – have lost their community focus while educational, criminal justice and other social systems suffer. But there is hope, she says.
“I think the church has a tremendous role and responsibility to play in all of this. Honestly, we just keep living from day to day until another incident happens,” she said. “The one place that the majority of Americans gather every week – whether it’s in a mosque, a synagogue or a church – the majority of us gather in those places. It would be so tremendous if we could use that as an opportunity to break some ground as it relates to some of these racial divides.”
Civil Rights Leaders Tell Why They Stay in the Battle