“Many ministers were afraid of allowing King to speak in their pulpits’’ because some thought King was a troublemaker, he said.
The Rev. Nathaniel Thomas, pastor of the Forestville Redeemer Baptist Church in Prince George’s County, noted that King was widely criticized for opposing the Vietnam War. In addition, the civil rights movement “became so unpopular” because people feared for their safety and thought King’s approach was too radical. The rift was so deep that the National Baptist Convention split into two groups.
In the 1960s, black churches were more than the epicenter of the civil rights movement. Congregations built education wings onto their sanctuaries. When there was a need, the church was there to help.
Today, a growing number of churches have sanctuaries that double as venues for Christian entertainment. Services such as soup kitchens are offered by fewer congregations.
Thomas Hart, producer of a newly updated documentary film about King, “The Making of a Holiday,” said the role of the church has shifted dramatically.
“Many churches today are focused on entertainment instead of engagement,” he said. “They are not engaging the authorities.”
Frederick Ware, an associate professor of theology at Howard University, comes down somewhere in the middle.
“The church serves many functions,” he said. “Given the increasing divide between rich and poor, there is a lot of frustration and people want change, so some look with nostalgia back at the 1960s.”
Ware added that while some criticize pastors who preach the “prosperity gospel,” many also focus on social ministry. “If churches are putting on jazz shows and sponsoring luxury cruises, they are only doing something that is being neglected,” he said.
As King’s birthday is celebrated as a national holiday Monday, some ministers and others caution against oversimplifying the civil rights leader and his legacy.
“In celebrating the holiday, a lot of people have lost a sense of King as a full, rounded person,” both preacher and proud protester, Ware said.