The Black Church has been a vital facet of Black life in the United States since the beginning of African American history. In many ways it has responded to the continuous racism this country practices, producing many prominent activists — before and after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Yet it is often overlooked by policymakers and activists who fail to recognize the potential for collaborative social justice activism, a huge part of the Black Church’s legacy. Other times the Church has distanced itself from contemporary movements.
This combination of liberal politicians not wanting to alienate nonreligious constituencies, young activists seeing the Black Church as part of a bygone civil rights era and sometimes churches themselves offering ambiguous messages, means that the Church’s resources go untapped. That leaves activists without a crucial support system that could help advance some of their demands.
The modern Black Church essentially began in 1794 when Bishop Richard Allen, along with fellow Christians, protested the segregation of Black members in Philadelphia’s White Methodist church. In rebellion they formed the first African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. By the early 1800s, establishing Black churches and schools was a priority for African American communities as Whites continued to deny them access to or participation in conventional institutions. Black churches enabled African Americans to rely less on White institutions while also providing a base for activists challenging racism and inequality.
This multifaceted role of Black churches continued throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, with churches teaching social and political engagement alongside religious principles. These churches cultivated Black leadership on both sides of the pulpit; ministers became representatives of their communities, and church members organized against social injustices.
Ongoing exclusion of Black Christians from White churches fueled growth for Black churches. Beginning in 1916, the Great Migration — in which millions of Black Southerners moved to Northern, Midwestern and Western states in hopes of finding better jobs, housing and a respite from virulent racism — only increased this segregation. Too many Whites were uncomfortable with the increasing number of African Americans flooding the cities. The migrants enlarged Black congregations and brought with them a different style of religious worship. It was “more emotional and intense,” notes Giles Wright.
This “Southern” style of worship would inform many church services in developing Northern cities, disgruntling some Black churchgoers who wanted worship to remain “respectable.” Their conservative mind-set contributed to the Black Church’s growing reputation — especially among a younger generation — as an institution that avoided relevant issues of social justice. There was a grain of truth to this perception. Before World War II, for example, some local Black clergy, believing having a job to be the primary concern, largely ignored young African American workers’ concerns with unfair labor practices.
Yet this reputation of passivity did not truly reflect reality. Even as credit for civil rights protests and legal advances often went to secular organizations, the Black Church remained at the center of social and political battles. The secular organizations may have been out front, especially in legal cases concerning segregation, but the Black Church provided crucial support and legwork through leaders such as the Rev. Joseph A. DeLaine of South Carolina, who led protests contributing to the Brown v. Board of Education decision.
By World War II, social protest and community outreach were taking center stage in many Black churches, as they viewed community service and civil rights demands as one and the same. This trend brought many African Americans into the civil rights movement. While figures such as King, C.T. Vivian and Fred Shuttlesworth gained renown as the movement exploded into national consciousness in the 1950s and 1960s, less famous participants in the movement’s most publicized battles — from the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott to the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches — were also members of a Black church, or depended on the Church for vision and guidance.
Pressure on legislators, church-led activism and outspoken support for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act helped push these laws into the books. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson recognized faith leaders’ contributions, signing the Voting Rights Act alongside King, and future congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.), himself an ordained Baptist minister. Rather than abandoning activism after passage of these groundbreaking laws, in some places, such as San Francisco, the Black Church expanded its activism to include gay rights issues.
The 1970s did present some challenges for the Black Church. Black Muslims, for example, dismissed Christianity as the White man’s religion, while leftists saw the church as anti-intellectual. And some Black Power advocates considered the Church’s teachings, such as turning the other cheek, counterproductive to social transformation.
But the Rev. James Hal Cone came out with two key books, “A Black Theology of Liberation” (1970) and “God of the Oppressed” (1975) that inspired Black clergy to redouble their focus on activism. “Any message that is not related to the liberation of the poor in a society is not Christ’s message. Any theology that is indifferent to the theme of liberation is not Christian theology,” wrote Cone.
This activism gained newfound importance in the 1980s as Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush slashed federal funding for local and nonprofit community businesses, limiting the outreach activities of many secular organizations. In 1981, Reagan recommended a temporary solution to homelessness — houses of worship would take in families on welfare. This move forced Black churches to step up, supporting their wider communities through food pantries, shelter programs and employment services.
This role of the Black Church as the beating heart of Black activism and organizing has remained steady into the 21st century. Even as the Black Lives Matter movement emerged amid the rise of social media and digital technology that provided new tools for organizing, the movement still relied upon the Black Church as a hub. After the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., St. John’s Church in St. Louis became a key meeting place, providing space to channel outrage into action. St. John’s senior pastor, the Rev. Michelle Higgins, continues to lead or participate in activist organizations today, including the Electoral Justice Project and Faith for Justice, which connects Black churches with Black-led activist movements.
And Higgins is not an exception. The Rev. Justin Schroeder of the First Universalist Church of Minneapolis, for example, publicly stated his support for protesters who shut down the Mall of America in 2014, one in a wave of protests against the refusal by grand juries to indict police officers who had killed unarmed Black men.
The Rev. William Barber co-founded the Poor People’s Campaign with the Rev. Liz Theoharis, which highlights the plight of the working poor in the United States by challenging systemic racism, poverty, environmental damage and military spending. This effort mirrors King’s late 1960s focus on economic justice, forgotten in large measure because of its radicalism.
Despite the Church’s powerful and continuous historical legacy, liberals often overlook the potential benefits of partnering with the Black Church. This is in part because of some churches’ lukewarm support of politicians who lean too far left. And it is also practical: the Pew Research Center found that a majority of liberals who identify as Black are Christian, but only a minority of them are churchgoers. Yet policymakers disregard this institution at their own peril; the Black Church is responsible for many of the accomplishments in civil rights and economic justice throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and remains guided by the biblical belief that, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (James 4:17).
Sustained activist engagement also offers a possible solution to declining attendance in the Black Church. While African Americans still identify as religious more often than White or Latino Americans, fewer identify as “religiously affiliated.” Focusing on social justice might especially appeal to younger Black Americans who tend to be engaged in sociopolitical issues. Building upon that legacy could bolster the Black Church today, and highlight its role as a potentially powerful ally in the new civil rights movement.