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Lessons from MLK's Fight to Mobilize the Black Church

The history of Black churches’ struggles offers both warnings and hope for the U.S. today.

Although the Black church today is practically synonymous with the fight for racial justice, in the 1950s and 1960s, devout Black Christians fiercely disagreed about whether their churches should get involved. The risks were plain. A church that opened its doors to civil rights activists could lose its valuable tax exemptions, or even be firebombed. But even beyond those physical and financial risks, the hardest problem was the same one white evangelicals are facing today as they contemplate abortion and other issues they view in deeply moral and religious terms: Is a church’s first duty to God or to the affairs of this world?      

Black churches had always struggled with this tension. Unlike white evangelicals, Black Christians have never had the luxury of turning away from worldly affairs, because they founded their churches in opposition to a white supremacist church that rejected and reviled them for their color. They had to reconcile their duty to God with what many felt was an urgent duty to “the race.” When racial justice became a mass movement in the 1950s, the question loomed sharper than ever: what is a Black church for?

In fact, Black Christians were fighting on two fronts: against a white supremacist society that denied their rights as citizens and against a church that often denied their rights as members. That tension resonated for many but especially for Black women, who made up more than half the members at most churches and contributed an outsize share of the money, yet could not be deacons or ministers. Indeed, according to the brilliant activist Ella Baker, who worked closely with King, the average Black Baptist minister tended to think of women as ornaments or faithful workers who were there to carry out the minister’s agenda. Under church rules, members had privileges but not rights. This left them vulnerable to what one woman called “church injustice.” It also opened the door to church “dictatorship.” King’s mentor, the Rev. Benjamin Mays, warned that some church leaders were using “crooked” methods to suppress their religious rivals, much as some white evangelicals are reportedly doing today, from the Southern Baptist Convention to Liberty University.

Few were more dictatorial than the Rev. Joseph H. Jackson, a law-and-order conservative who, through decades of savvy infighting and manipulating Baptist rules, had dominated both his home church, Chicago’s Olivet Baptist—a megachurch with 20,000 members—and the National Baptist Convention (NBC), the umbrella organization for America’s Black Baptists. For years, Jackson used his unchecked power as President of the NBC to keep it on the sidelines of the civil rights movement, which he personally viewed as little more than “lawbreaking.”