Historically the Black Church has been instrumental in advocating and advancing Civil Rights, and was central to organizing the protests and coalescing the voice of black people into actionable agendas.
MLK speaking before Ebenezer Baptist’s Congregation
The question today is, with the fundamental changes within the Black Church, is it possible anymore that the Church may regain it’s mantle as a central platform for the battle for Civil Rights?
Arguing against that is the reality that the Black Church in many places isn’t fully tied to it’s geographic community. As black folks have moved out of Urban areas to the burbs, the communities they have left behind, largely become “Commuter Communities”. Ergo, the expats drive to the old black community for services, whether it is a barbershop or beauty salon, or still maintain an allegiance to the old Church. They likely maintain friendships, or have relatives living in the old community. However, the issues with being black in America’s suburbs, and in the inner city are likely to be quite different.
Second is the fractionation of the community by the very Church which should be bringing it back together. Male participation in the Black Church has dropped to historic lows. Part of that has to do with personality cultism on the part of some male Preachers, part has to do with the belief the church really isn’t interested in the problems of black males, whether that perception is fair or not. An interesting analysis was published last year in the Atlanta Black Star – 6 Reasons Young Black People Are Leaving The Church.
Summed by Tony Carter who serves as the Lead Pastor of East Point Church in East Point, Georgia.The article suggest the rise in economic opportunities and social progress is making the church irrelevant. Secondly, in an ever-changing digital age, the church appears stagnant, old fashioned, and unattractive. Thirdly, today’s educated black man and woman have less use for faith in an enlightened age where reason and science answer most of their questions. Fourthly, there is a growing discontent among this generation of blacks with biblical passages that seemingly tolerate or advocate for such social ills as slavery and genocide. Fifthly, the church comes off as intolerant, judgmental, and simplistic when it comes to issues of sexual activity, sexual orientation, and living holy in a sexually free society. Lastly, the article suggested that this generation seeks authenticity whereas the black church today gives the impression that everyone has it all together. In other words, black millennials want to stop pretending.
I believe there is another reason. Far too many black churches have adopted a policy of exclusionism, requiring their parishioners to marry or date only people who believe as they do. That just isn’t a formula for long term success. -especially in a society where only about 42% of black women will ever marry.
…Many of today’s black pastors, some young activists argue, have moved away from the black church’s traditional role as a center for African-American mobilization. “Today, what we see is churches being appendages of the kind of status-quo body politic,” said Dayvon Love, 28, director of public policy at the Baltimore think tank and activist group Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. “This has happened generally post-integration, post-civil rights. You have cadres of individual back people who get positioned in white-dominated institutions, and their presence is used as a way to deflect from structural change.”
It sounds like a radical critique, but senior clergy have similar concerns. “If you are a church that’s never in ‘good’ trouble with the powers, then you’re probably in bed with the powers,” the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who holds Martin Luther King Jr.’s former pulpit at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church,told NPR recently. “We’re doing precious little to actually dismantle the American prison-industrial complex, which is the new Jim Crow.”
To be sure, the protest tradition is alive and kicking in some Baltimore churches. Just last month, the Rev. Jamal Bryant, pastor of Empowerment Temple, led a group that briefly shut down a major highway into the city during the morning rush hour to denounce plans for a new juvenile jail.
And the Rev. Ron Owens, a former pastor who organized the Freddie Gray funeral, bristles at the notion that local clergy have been co-opted by the powers that be.
The same group of pastors who led the funeral and the march through the riot were instrumental in getting the U.S. Department of Justice to launch a full-blown investigation of Baltimore police, Owens said. In the week after the riot, Owens said, the group requested meetings with Justice Department officials and held separate sessions with the department’s civil rights chief, Vanita Gupta, and with Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
But Owens said it’s fair to say that such action should have come sooner, and that Baltimore clergy were previously silent on the issue of policing abuses -– even though some had experienced the problem personally. Owens himself recalled a police officer pulling him over and asking why he drove such a nice car. The Freddie Gray case has served as a wake-up call, Owens said.
“I’m glad that the alarm clock has sounded,” Owens said. “I’m the first to say that we were asleep.”…
Pastors who find the critique of co-optation too radical say another charge weighs more heavily: that they have become disengaged from the communities that surround them.
The Rev. Melvin Russell is assistant pastor at Baltimore’s New Beginnings Ministries. But his day job is as a lieutenant colonel in the Baltimore Police Department, where he leads the community partnership division. “When I was coming up,” Russell said, “the churches were community churches. We’re no longer community churches. We have devolved into commuter churches.”
And gaps between congregants and neighborhoods have political consequences, said Michael Leo Owens, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta who has studied urban black churches. “Many of the people who we could argue are most affected by some of the problems that we see with something like, say, the Baltimore Police Department are folks that are not in the pews of these churches,” he said. “So there’s this tremendous disconnect.”
Russell previously served as commander of Baltimore’s Eastern police district, where he pushed hard for residents and community leaders -– including clergy –- to engage directly with people involved in drugs and crime. His message to the church, Russell said, was that they had failed.
“You’ve can’t have a church in a community and at the same time have an open-air drug market right outside the church,” he said. “Something’s wrong with that picture as far as I’m concerned.”
The recent spate of violence has prompted actions that Russell should like: Bryant, the pastor who led last month’s highway shutdown, has announcedthat clergy and other volunteers will patrol hot spots of violence on weekend nights this summer. Bryant also promised midnight basketball tournaments and a Father’s Day march to highlight the violence.
Meanwhile, Hickman is turning Southern Baptist Church church into a center for community redevelopment, building senior housing and other amenities for his East Baltimore neighborhood.
“Politicians and bureaucrats have ignored the church as a community stakeholder and developer and looked for others to come in and save the city,” he said. “But I believe that the church is the ideal place to start with what should happen within the community.”…(more)
In the end analysis, I believe the answer is probably not. The big reason in my mind is that the Black Community in America has changed so radically (geographically, economically, and in vision). The second is that advancing Civil Rights in this day and age involves the exercise of Political power. The simple fact is, black politicians have dropped the ball largely in knee-jerk fighting flash fires, or focusing on the wrong problems. In my view the 42 black Congressmen sitting on the Hill are probably the most useless excuses for elected officials in the country. They have been utterly co-opted. I really find it hard to believe that 20% of the elected official in Congress can’t use the parliamentary tricks commonly used by Republicans to add riders to Bills which advance the cause. If there is some sort of lucid strategy there…
I certainly don’t see it.
If you go back and do some research on how the Civil Rights movement was strategized, and planned – you will find a group of individuals who laid out a practical strategy and executed it ruthlessly. It took a lot more than organizers or politicians showing up on the front steps of 1st Baptist mouthing their slippery/slithery support.
In the end this is why I think the grass roots organizations rising up around “Black Lives Matter” are a far more effective tool.