The Rev. Gardner C. Taylor, a Baptist minister whose social conscience and gift for oratory made him one of the most influential African American preachers during the civil rights movement and beyond, died April 5 in Durham, N.C. He was 96.
The cause was an apparent heart attack, said his wife, Phillis Taylor.
During a ministry that spanned decades, Rev. Taylor became known and celebrated both for his charisma in the sanctuary and his leadership outside the church walls. In 2000, President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
A grandson of slaves, Rev. Taylor grew up in the segregated South but spent much of his pastoral career in New York. From 1948 until his retirement in 1990, he was pastor of Concord Baptist Church of Christ in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Under his leadership, the congregation grew to an estimated 10,000. His pulpit, the scholar Michael Eric Dyson has said, became “the most prestigious in black Christendom.”
Known by the end of his life as the dean of African American preachers, Rev. Taylor was endowed with a voice whose power was equated to that of a pipe organ. His sermons touched on human struggle — a theme that was both timeless and immediately relevant for participants in the civil rights movement.
Rev. Taylor’s style was so compelling, Dyson said in an interview, that other preachers “traded the tapes and subsequently the CDs of his latest sermons like kids trade baseball cards.” Rev. Taylor was credited with inspiring generations of ministers, among them the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Rev. Taylor, whose father was a minister and had known King’s grandfather, invited the young civil rights leader to preach at the Concord church as early as 1951, according to the publication Baptist History and Heritage. Several years later, Rev. Taylor called King to preach before the congregation again during the bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., that had begun when Rosa Parks declined to give her seat to a white person.
In 1961, as the civil rights movement intensified, Rev. Taylor, King and other ministers split with the National Baptist Convention USA to form the Progressive National Baptist Convention. Rev. Taylor was reported to have been arrested three times during protests. He was credited with raising money to support King’s work in the South before his assassination in Memphis in 1968.
“I did not realize — I should have, I feel guilty about that — I did not realize the pressures this man was under,” Rev. Taylor told the publication Religion & Ethics Newsweekly in 2006. “There were threats on his life constantly. He lived under that shadow day by day, and as I look back upon his years, I wonder how he managed.”
Rev. Taylor remained a prominent minister for decades. In 1990, he introduced Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first post-apartheid leader, at an event in New York. Three years later, on the morning of the presidential inauguration, Rev. Taylor gave a sermon before Clinton that was said to have left the president-elect in tears.
Gardner Calvin Taylor was born in Baton Rouge on June 18, 1918. In his preaching he sometimes reflected on the indignities that he experienced in the Jim Crow South. When authorities sprayed for mosquitoes, he recalled, they limited their efforts to the white side of town, apparently unaware that insects had little regard for such boundaries.
Despite the obstacles to African Americans of his generation, he said that he initially aspired to be a lawyer. He changed his mind as a teenager after surviving an automobile accident that left at least one person dead. Two witnesses, both white, testified that Rev. Taylor had not been at fault.
“It was inconceivable then for a white person — we thought, at least — to give accurate, impartial testimony where a black was involved with a white. That is simply what the South was,” he told an interviewer for Baylor University’s Institute for Oral History. “Preachers . . . from other parts of the state were certain that if this had happened somewhere else, it could not have turned out that way. I would have gone to prison or worse.”
“Out of that, somehow,” Rev. Taylor continued, “and I cannot give any rational explanation of that process, I turned to the ministry.”
He was a 1937 graduate of Leland College in Baker, La., and received a divinity degree from Oberlin College in Ohio in 1940.
Rev. Taylor was assigned to churches in Ohio, New Orleans and Baton Rouge before moving to Concord Baptist. After a fire consumed the church in 1952, he led the congregation in a fundraising effort to rebuild it. In addition to its religious services, the church ran a nursing home, elementary school and credit union.
Outside the congregation, Rev. Taylor’s civic engagement included service on the New York City Board of Education. His writings and sermons were collected in books including “How Shall They Preach” (1977), “The Scarlet Thread” (1981) and “Faith in the Fire” (2011).
His first wife, the former Laura Scott, died in 1995 after more than 50 years of marriage. Survivors include his wife of 18 years, Phillis Strong Taylor of Raleigh, N.C.; a daughter from his first marriage, Martha Taylor LaCroix of Harbor City, Calif.; and a grandson.
“My message is that dignity is personal,” Rev. Taylor told the New York Times on his retirement in 1990, “that one by one, people can matter and that privilege has responsibility.”