Few can dispute the fact that the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s found its strength and momentum in the Black church. For the most part, the church was a primary producer of Civil Rights Leaders, e.g.: Dr. Martin Luther King, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Rev. Jesse Jackson and the like. Some of the most historic milestones of the ‘movement’ occurred or at least began in or around the church. Some of Dr. King’s most famous speeches were delivered from pulpits across the South. The march that ended in what we now know as ‘Bloody Sunday’ began at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, Alabama in 1965, and the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church will forever be etched in our minds as one of the most painful losses of the ‘movement,’ as four little girls were killed and others injured in Birmingham in 1963. The Black church was seen as the place where the Black community could gather to find healing and safety, and to collectively develop strategies for the procurement of “liberty and justice for all.”
But somewhere along the way (as the ‘movement’ came to an end with the dawn of the ‘70s), the Black Church stopped being the Black church, as it had been known. The focus shifted from being an institution that empowered its people to seek justice ‘now’ to an entity that was content in simply trying to thrive with the ‘freedom’ that its people had been rationed. The Black church became a place infatuated with self-improvement. Since then, the Black church has been among the most divided of American institutions. As a result, it has lost its place as the voice for justice and change for Black people.
With the dawning of what some have coined the ‘New Civil Rights Movement’ sparked by the death of Michael Brown, Jr. In Ferguson, Mo., many have pointed out the seemingly absent and silent approach the Black church has taken to the movement. At the same time, many in the church have criticized the unconventional ways of organizing and protesting that this new and young generation of activists have taken to. I can’t even begin to count the number of Black clergy who have said that God has not called them to this work—who have offered lame excuses for why they cannot and will not lift their voices and encourage their congregations to join the fight for justice once again. Many have suggested that God has called us to simply pray and not be present with the people. Still others have agreed to go, but not without demanding that they be given prominent leadership roles and decision-making power.
The audacity to even think that, after being absent, we as clergy and Black church leadership have a right to demand anything is nothing short of foolishness. Reclaiming our place as an ally to freedom fighters and proponents of justice requires that we acknowledge and admit that we have failed this generation of activists and that, somewhere along the way, we lost sight of the things that are really important, i.e., somewhere in the mix of annual days, building funds and endeavors to purchase private jets, we’ve lost sight of the people, the work, and the call to “preach the gospel to the poor; heal the brokenhearted; preach deliverance to the captives; recovering of sight to the blind; and to set at liberty them that are bruised.”
I do not believe that it is too late for the Black church to change its course and redeem itself among its people. The opportunity is available. The need is clear. But the ball is in our court. The questions become: “will the real Black church stand back up?”
(Rev. Shazetta Thompson-Hill is a wife, mother, pastor, writer and activist based in Jackson, Tennessee. If you have questions or comments, contact her via e-mail at <pastorzetty7394;gmail.com>. You may also like her on Facebook @pastorzetty or follow her on twitter 7364;minzetty.)