Preaching equality: Forty-six years after Rev. King's death, black ministers work to preach his dream

ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 18, 2014 

As the son of a black minister, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. followed in his father's footsteps, fighting for justice and equality in an era when blacks were relegated to the margins of society.

With the help of black churches across the nation, King and other leaders of the civil rights movement became a powerful national force and succeeded in tearing down barriers that had existed for centuries.

"The black church was the institutional center of the black freedom struggle of the '50s and '60s," said Gary Sprayberry, chairman of the History and Geography Department at Columbus State University. "It was a place where people could express themselves freely, could follow their creative impulses, could gather in relative safety, and could discuss the issues of the day in an environment that was welcoming and nurturing. Many of the major events of the civil rights movement -- the Birmingham Campaign of 1963, the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965 -- began in churches. It was, without a doubt, the most important institution in the struggle for black equality."

Sprayberry said the black church has always been a beacon of hope for the community, and King set the standard for spiritual leadership.

"King possessed all of the qualities anyone would want in a religious leader," he said. "He was charismatic, learned, eloquent, seemingly without fear, and fiercely determined. … Many of his leadership qualities, of course, were learned from his father, the longtime minister at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta."

Black churches still play a significant role in today's society, providing spiritual nourishment for the community. They are ubiquitous in every community where there is a large black population and remain bustling centers of activity. Last week, a citywide revival was held at the Fourth Street Baptist Church in Columbus, drawing hundreds of people nightly. The event, organized by 19 churches, is held each year in observance of the King holiday.

"It was created to call together the city, as well as pastors and churches, to speak to the spiritual condition of our country, our state and our city," said the Rev. J.H. Flakes III, pastor of the church on Fifth Street.

But some local scholars and religious leaders said black churches aren't as effective as they used to be when it comes to issues of social justice. They point to the levels of poverty, blight and crime still prevalent in the black community and say there's still much work to be done.

"It's that which Christ came to do -- not only that we have life, but have life more abundantly, and you cannot enjoy the abundance of life at the end of the day if the church does not teach, if the church does not go down and aid and do the things that Christ intended the church to do," said the Rev. Joseph Baker, the new pastor of St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church on Sixth Avenue.

He said the church should be about clothing the needy and feeding the hungry.

"So when we talk about those persons in our community who lack those things, if we as a church -- whether we're Methodist, Baptist or Church of God In Christ -- if we're not doing that, we've lost the effectiveness of the church. I believe there's a great need for that type of ministry."

The Spiritual Realm

Johnnie Warner of the Columbus Black History Museum said religion is a significant part of black culture, and it's important for churches to minister to the community.

"Blacks around the world wherever they go, whatever they do, they believe within the spiritual realm," he said. "Christianity was especially strong in America and the civil rights movement was able to move through the pulpit to bring about change."

Warner said the success of the movement paved the way for black churches to make economic gains. But while they've become more prosperous, he believes the spiritual condition of the community has declined.

"They've expanded into real estate and things like stocks and bonds," Warner said. "Some of them have become so powerful that they have their own private jets. But they're not feeding the people spiritually."

He said black churches in Columbus weren't as powerful during the civil rights movement as those in Alabama cities like Montgomery and Birmingham. When King came to Columbus in July 1958, segregationists threatened his life. Organizers wanted to hold the event at St. James AME Church. But the church board declined out of fear of violence and political ramifications.

King, instead, spoke at the Prince Hall Masonic Temple, where armed masons stood on the rooftop. Later that night, dynamite exploded at the home of a black woman who had recently moved into a white segregated neighborhood. The woman, Essie Mae Ellison, and five other occupants escaped unharmed.

James Bussey, 87, has been a member of St. James since the 1940s. He said King's visit had the black community gripped by fear.

"Bombings were a threat, (terrorizing) telephone calls were a threat, lynching was a threat," he said. "You didn't want any of that happening to you if you violated any of the white man's laws. In order to be safe in Columbus, Georgia, you followed the rules."

While St. James and other churches in Columbus didn't lead local civil rights activities during that period, they did serve as the spiritual training ground for black civil rights pioneers like A.J. McClung, William Henry Spencer and Thomas Brewer, who was assassinated.

Pushing for Change

As the Civil Rights Movement began to make gains, churches in Columbus became more active, according to some local clergy and historians. The Rev. J.H. Flakes III, pastor of the Fourth Street Baptist Church, recalls his father, the Rev. J.H. Flakes Jr., and other local pastors being very active in the 1960s and 1970s. He said the Revs. Rudolph Allen, Wayne Baker, William Howell, J.C. Harris, Albert McCorvey and Fred C. Lofton were among those who pushed for change.

Flakes said some of the ministers worked with the white business community, as well as state legislators, to address issues of injustice and equality. And churches were a pivotal part of the movement.

"Meetings and rallies were held in terms of trying to get people out for voter's registration and ensuring that people got to the polls," he said. "So the church was not only the moral compass of that time, but it was also the spiritual place where people of all walks of life, regardless of their social or economic status, could come and feel as though they were somebody."

Flakes is chairman of the social action committee for the local Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. He believes black churches still have presence, but they're not as visible as many people would like them to be.

He said some pastors have been silenced by federal regulations that prevent tax-exempt organizations from being political and churches aren't as unified as they were in the past.

"I think if there's anything we've missed and gone away from, it's a very systematic, unified way of addressing the socio-economic and educational plight that exists," he said. "There is an effort to raise the voice again of the IMA, and not just the IMA, but pastors throughout the community. Because if you're a pastor of a church, you're a pastor of the community and you have a responsibility to be engaged in the community."

Flakes said black churches are still making progress today, even though most are no longer organizing marches or sit-ins.

"I think the movement now is not just for people to have jobs, but we have people in boardrooms, we have people in positions that can impact policy, impact legislation," he said.

"I think strategies have changed and I think churches that realize that and adapt to the changes are going to have the biggest impact."

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