By Greg Garrison and Val Walton
Religion News Service
Saturday, April 5, 2008
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- They were pastors and civil rights leaders who broke the back of unjust segregation laws and set in motion the transformation of the United States into a more racially tolerant nation.
Forty years after the violent death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, the generation of pastors whose passion and commitment to civil rights rang from pulpits, stirred marches and rallies, and even filled jail cells, is fading.
In the post-civil rights movement years, activist preachers have set their sights on different kinds of injustices: crime, educational inequities and the gap between rich and poor.
"The generation that's coming up now is enjoying the fruit of the work of those leaders," said Janice Franklin, director of the National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African American Culture at Alabama State University.
Many of the old lions of the civil rights movement have died in recent years. They were friends and allies of King and played supporting roles in the civil rights movement that started in the South and soon spread nationwide.
The Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, 86, invited the Rev. Martin Luther King to Birmingham in 1963 to assist in leading the civil rights struggle. He pastored Bethel Baptist Church in Collegeville for eight years before moving to Cincinnati in 1961, but returned to Birmingham regularly to lead rallies and marches. "My blood ran through Birmingham streets," he often said, referring to the times he was beaten by police.
The road to justice in Birmingham was paved with the leadership of clergy and their churches -- the center of religious and civic life in the city's black communities.
Pastors often carried their work from the pulpits to the courtrooms, said U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon. In the 1960s, Clemon was a young Columbia Law School graduate who handled civil rights cases.
"Black ministers often were the plaintiffs" in lawsuits to change laws, Clemon said. There also were numerous cases of Birmingham vs. Fred Shuttlesworth, involving trespass, Clemon said.
Today, Shuttlesworth is back in Birmingham, undergoing rehabilitation for a stroke he suffered last year. His fiery sermons might be done, but he hasn't given up on his fight for justice.
"I don't figure I've lost my life," Shuttlesworth said recently. "I have more to do. It will involve challenging something about the system. Something about it is not quite right."
Abraham Woods, 79, a longtime loyal supporter of Shuttlesworth, has been battling cancer for several years, and in 2006 passed on the presidency of the local Southern Christian Leadership Conference to his 74-year-old brother, Calvin.
Abraham Woods, pastor of St. Joseph Baptist Church, still speaks energetically when he recalls the civil rights movement and talks about the need to continue the fight. But he concedes that there might never be a solution to such social ills as racism and crime.
"As long as people are people, we are going to have to grapple with those things," he said.
Woods said he doubts that the country will see another leader such as King, who rose from pastoring a mid-sized Montgomery church to leading a national movement. Any change will result from a collective effort of pastors to carry on King's dream, he said.
"It would have been a great thing if we had another King," Woods said. "He was a special man for our times. We are going to have to deal with it collectively. We are going to have to have unity."
Pastors in the civil rights era practiced social activism by leading marches to protest issues such as school segregation, separate but unequal public accommodations and unequal access to courts.
Although the federal government brought changes to remedy some of those injustices, remedies for current challenges are not as clear, ministers said.
"We have been able to accomplish and retain some of the civil rights," Woods said. "It looks like our silver rights continue to be elusive," he said, a reference to economic disparities.
Today, social activist pastors focus on economic empowerment, enhancing public education, job training and anti-crime initiatives.
The injustices often take the shape of problems such as getting loans or job opportunities, younger ministers said. The enemies are not as easily personified as was Birmingham's notorious public safety commissioner, Eugene "Bull" Connor. "It's not as obvious as a billy club," said the Rev. Anthony Johnson, grandson of the late Rev. N.H. Smith.
Still, there is a need to address some of the problems with old-fashioned tools, such as marches and rallies, Woods said.
"We have to keep that in our arsenal because it raises the level of consciousness," he said. "I think marches will be in order as long as there is a human family."
But the complex problems facing black America today may require solutions other than marches, sit-ins and boycotts.
"The reason for marches was to bring attention to the issues, and they were successful," Franklin said. "There is new leadership with a new agenda that builds on the work of the civil rights era. It's a continuation of what Dr. King envisioned. The strategies may be different."
The Rev. Gerald Austin, former pastor of New City Church and founder of the Center for Urban Missions, has created programs that emphasize job training and technology.
"I believe that the movement that we are faced with is an economic movement," Austin said. According to the 2000 Census, the median income level for white households in Jefferson County was $45,262, compared with $25,469 for blacks.
Austin, 54, advocates the church taking the lead in tackling the issue of community and economic revitalization by helping its members understand how to take ownership of property and create vital businesses.
The Rev. Steve Green, pastor of More Than Conquerors Faith Church, has taken an active role in anti-violence programs.
Green, 48, said he believes that younger ministers are part of a new wave of pastoral leaders that he described as the "Joshua generation." Joshua, the biblical successor to Moses, helped lead the Jewish people to the Promised Land after Moses delivered them from slavery in Egypt. Green believes a new generation of religious leaders will help carry on the civil rights gains made by King's generation.
"We have new strategies, but we are not abandoning necessarily all of the old," Green said. "Any biblical strategy is never obsolete."
Greg Garrison and Val Walton write for the Birmingham News in Birmingham, Ala.