A hush fell over the ballroom of the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel as the Rev. Gardner C. Taylor talked about the urgent phone call that he got in 1961 from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
King, then 32, had been removed as an officer of the National Baptist Convention USA because of his leadership role in the emerging civil rights movement, and he was concerned about the group’s reluctance to take a stand on racial injustice. Taylor, one of King’s mentors, was outraged by the group’s treatment of the young minister and uttered a few words that even now he won’t mention.
“It is not good company for me to repeat the words that I said to him,” said Taylor, now 93, chuckling sheepishly on stage. “But I stand by them.”
Later in 1961, Taylor, King and other black ministers walked away from the old group to form the more-activist Progressive National Baptist Convention, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this week in Washington. As part of the celebration, the group on Thursday paid homage to Taylor, a retired New York pastor, who is widely considered one of this country’s greatest preachers.
“You are of noble heritage. Many people paid a great price,” Taylor told those assembled for the tribute.
It is fitting, Taylor said, that Progressive Baptists marked the 50th anniversary as the nation’s capital prepares for the Aug. 28 dedication of a national memorial honoring King, who not only pushed a group of bold young black ministers to tie social justice to the Gospel but also became the voice of a people fed up with injustice.
“Dr. King stood in the vanguard of those who paid a great price,” Taylor said. “The nation had a future that it had not yet begun to imagine. The fact that we have a president of color was far beyond the realm of possibilities, but God has a way of doing things.”
In the past five decades, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, based in Washington, has grown to include about 2.5 million members, and social justice remains part of its core mission. The group, for instance, is among those religious organizations that ordain women.
The Rev. Carroll A. Baltimore, the new president, said the group also continues to focus on developing young leaders.
In November 1961, 33 Baptists, responding to a letter from the Rev. L. Venchael Booth, gathered at his church, Zion Baptist in Cincinnati, to discuss the possibility of charting a new course. After intense days of meetings, the group, by a single vote, decided to break away and start a new organization.
The new group provided a denominational home for the movement, and young people were at the core, Baltimore said. “It was young people, in college and high school, that caused that great transformation.”
Many of the younger leaders looked up to Taylor, a Louisiana native and minister’s son who became pastor of Concord Baptist Church of Christ in New York in 1948. Over 50 years, he helped the Brooklyn church grow to more than 14,000 members and become one of the most influential congregations in the New York area.
Taylor, who has taught at Harvard and Yale universities, has a broad smile and the demeanor of a patient grandfather. He chooses his words with great care, and his deep voice can still boom from the pulpit, where he achieved distinction as a poetic, eloquent speaker.
In 1979, Time magazine named him one of the seven greatest preachers of the American Protestant movement. In 1993, Baylor University recognized him as one of the 12 greatest preachers in the English-speaking world. In 2000, President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In Taylor’s new book, “Faith in the Fire,” published by commentator Tavis Smiley, the preacher and civil rights icon writes with insight and wit about faith, love and other matters. Smiley and Princeton University professor Cornell West, who have been traveling by bus on a controversial “poverty tour,” joined the tribute to Taylor.
“Gardner Taylor is the greatest living preacher in the Christian world today,” Smiley said.
After Taylor’s speech, convention delegates sang an upbeat version of the old hymn “We’ve Come This Far by Faith.”
The Rev. Morris L. Shearin Sr., pastor of the Israel Baptist Church in Washington, tied the song’s message to a continuing struggle.
In the same way that King, Taylor and other progressive people of faith fought oppressive forces in the 1960s, Shearin said, “we need to speak to some of the people challenging us today, like the Republicans in Congress or the tea party.”