Two years into his presidency of the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., the Rev. T.J. Jemison has begun to nudge the nation's largest black denomination into a more activist mode, he said here this week.
In his address to delegates gathered for the annual meeting at the Convention Center here, Jemison reported substantial progress in buttressing church-related colleges, strengthening ties to ecumenical organizations and promoting voter registration. Perhap more important, there are signs that the bitter dispute that racked the church for nearly a quarter of a century is ending.
Jemison, 64, a Baton Rouge, La., pastor, was elected president of the denomination two years ago, succeeding the Rev. Joseph H. Jackson of Chicago, who clung to church's presidency for 29 years despite repeated efforts to unseat him.
Jackson's political and social conservatism, plus his repeated refusal to relinquish the leadership of the church, was at the root of a bitter split in 1961 when activist pastors, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., left and formed the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc.
Jemison reported yesterday that some of those congregations -- including Shiloh Baptist and Metropolitan Baptist locally -- have returned to the fold.
The church, which he said now has more than 7 million members, is "the largest organization in the world for Negroes," Jemison said in his annual report. But it is not enough to be known "just for our numbers alone," he said. "We must be known for what we do."
A campaign to raise funds for black colleges resulted in grants totaling $950,000 to more than a dozen institutions that have long had Baptist ties, he said.
Among the gifts to colleges was $100,000 for Morehouse College, which Jemison said "paid for a life-size statue" of King that rests on an eight-foot marble base that is inscribed with, among other things, "the name of our convention, the president Jemison and secretary," the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson.
Jemison's praise of King as "one of the greatest American leaders that has ever been born" brought the delegates to their feet for an ovation matched only by a later tribute to Jesse Jackson, who has taken an active part in the convention here.
Jemison recounted his own close ties to King and said, to applause, "I am pleased that the long period of silence between this convention and the King family has ended." Jemison's predecessor was adamantly opposed to King's program of civil disobedience.
National Baptists, under Jemison, have strengthened ties -- and funding -- to the National Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches and the Baptist World Alliance, the president said.
Jemison threaded artfully through the religion-in-politics thicket, making his Democratic sympathies clear without ever mentioning the name of a candidate or political party, even when he recounted, with some awe, a phone call from President Reagan inviting him to the White House to "talk about our mutual concerns."
Even though the president is "a charming fellow," the administration is unsympathetic to black aspirations, Jemison said. He called for the election of leaders sensitive to "the concerns of people and Negro people especially."
Earlier Jemison said the convention had registered 2 million new voters during the primary season and would register another million before election day.
Most of the new recruits were added to voter rolls to support the Jesse Jackson's run for the Democratic presidential nomination.