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“The Role of the Black Church in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States”

As we bring Black History Month 2023 to a close, here is a speech that I gave at House of Prayer Episcopal Church (HOPE) on March 20th, 1983. As this speech almost turns 40, it is striking the ways in which things have and have not changed, and how many ways in which we can still learn from history.

Image of the exterior of House of Prayer Episcopal Church a slate gray church located in the Ogontz section of Philadelphia, PA
House of Prayer Episcopal Church, Image Source:

Speech Delivered to House of Prayer, March 20, 1983

To Father Saunders, Mr. Merit (William), Mr. Robinson, Men’s Club Members and House of Prayer Members – I am most appreciative of this opportunity to address you this morning. I am particularly pleased that you have extended this invitation to me since we are less than one month removed from Black History Month. As active members of a church with firm roots in the Black community, each of you has an investment in the rich legacy that the Black Church maintains with regard to the Civil Rights Movement in this country.

In attempting to place this topic in a historical timeframe, I was faced with answering the question of when the Civil Rights Movement actually began in this country. In a sense, the movement was born on the day that the first African set foot on the shores of America.

The first twenty Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619, one year before the pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock. The Africans had been kidnapped from a Spanish ship by Dutchmen who hoped to sell them in the labor-starved colonies. On the Spanish ships, according to Spanish law, the Africans were considered permanent slaves but under Dutch law, by which they were governed as a result of their seizure, the Africans held a more indeterminate status. Under Dutch law, they were something less than slaves and more like indentured White servants. Indentured servants were bound to a master for a specified period of time, and then free to establish themselves as free, emancipated citizens.

But within the next thirty years, the legal status of the Africans in this country became clear and consistent. Blacks in America were chattel, with no Constitutional Rights that were enforceable in a court of law.

The Black Church had a role in the Civil Rights Movement from its inception. Slaves were routinely lynched or disciplined severely for attempting to learn to read. The first textbook that many slaves read was The Bible. Because the process of enslavement depended very heavily on the elimination of the cultural norms with which the Africans were familiar, it was crucial that the slaves be kept illiterate.

But it was the Black Church men and women who set up secret meetings so that The Bible could be read and those who desired could be taught to read. It was the Black Church men and women who tempered their love and devotion to Christianity with quiet remembrances of their African roots and customs. It was the Black Church men and women who helped form the network of communication that kept the Underground Railroad alive and shepherded many slaves to their freedom in Canada and the states in the North which had abolished slavery. The Abolitionist Movement focused heavily on Black ministers and their congregations as living proof that the stereotype of the “uncivilized African” who was being enslaved for his own good, was simply false.

The growth of Black Churches was aided because many White churches refused to accept Black members. In 1763, William Boen, a Black man, was refused admittance to the Society of Friends, which at the time was agitating for equality for Blacks. He was finally admitted to membership 51 years later in 1814. In the 1750s in Pennsylvania, a few Blacks were allowed to worship with the Episcopalians and the Moravians, but they were not generally given complete membership or total equality. When the Society of Friends finally began admitting Blacks, they were forced to sit in the back of the Meeting House, on benches reserved exclusively for them.

By 1780, many Whites were openly antagonistic and fearful of the freed slaves, and many of the freed slaves saw the value of having separate and independent institutions. The result was that in 1791, a number of Blacks who had previously attended White churches united to form an “African Church.” A number of splinter groups developed from the original church. The Colored Presbyterian Church was established in Philadelphia in 1800. During the next few years, Black churches of Baptists, Episcopalians and Methodists were established. The first Black ministers at any church in this country were in these Philadelphia churches.

In 1816, the Black Methodists of Philadelphia formed the first general organization of Black Churches, when they established the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Richard Allen, the Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, distinguished himself as a brilliant and eloquent speaker and a respected spokesman for Black people in Philadelphia and the nation. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones founded the Free African Society, which supported a school and sponsored many protests against slavery and the denigration of freed Blacks.

Black clergymen and their church members were active in movements that arose to seek money from the state legislatures for the education of Black children and laws that would give freedmen the right to vote. Although the state legislatures appropriated and withdrew generally paltry sums to support Black education, the Black Church persevered. Fearing the illiteracy that had kept their parents and grandparents trapped in involuntary servitude, many Black Churches set up schools which were attached to and often located in the Churches. The Churches sponsored public lectures and set up night schools for adults who were working during the day.

Almost all of the movements for the betterment of Black life in America, emanated from the Black Church. The Black Church also provided entertainment for the community. Black poets such as Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Gwendolyn Brooks were introduced to the Black public from the pulpits. Political and charitable work was initiated in the Black Church.

The Civil Rights Movement ushered in by 1960s received much of its leadership from men and women of God. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was a young minister when he led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and marched and demonstrated with thousands all over this country. Rev. Jesse Jackson, Dr. King’s protégé, continues his struggle with Operation PUSH. Malcom X, as a disciple of Elijah Muhammed, a Black Muslim and later a Moslem, was a deeply religious man. Rev. Leon Sullivan has nurtured the O.I.C. into a massive, diversified instrument of training, education and placement of young Black men and women.

The contributions of the Black Church to the Civil Rights Movement in this country has been formidable. The Black Church has not been without its critics. Dr. King was criticized for his moral position on non-violence. Many of his critics believe that non-violence was only going to beget violence against Blacks. The Black Church has been criticized for being apolitical and materialistic and parochial.

The brief historical capsule that I have presented to you this morning should at least dampen some of the criticism against the Black Church. It is true that Black ministers and their congregations have often taken positions of moderation, but the results they have produced indicate that the Civil Rights Movement has had many successes as a result. But there is still so very much that must be done.

As I read some of the background historical materials in preparation for my presentation, I was struck by the similarities of the problems which continue to face our community today. The Black Church in the last 200 years has been in the forefront of agitation for better educational opportunities, clean safe housing, and political equality.

The rich historical legacy which I have briefly outlined means that we should accept the challenge of safeguarding the moral integrity of our community. Many people have deluded themselves into thinking that the Civil Rights Movement is “over.” It is not. Our community is plagued by record levels of unemployment, crime, illiteracy and hunger. The historical legacy that our predecessors have left us means that the slightest contribution that we can make in terms of our community and Church has a potential to contribute to some real improvement.

In answer to Langston Hughes’, “What happens to a dream deferred,” I am hopeful that we will one day be able to answer, “it happened – we are free!” There is no question that the resolution remains dependent in part on the vitality of the Black Church.

Thank you.


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