How the drowning of a Black boy led to two weeks of racist violence and exposed the segregation at the heart of Chicago.
When Julian DeShazier, a 37-year-old Black pastor, marches in Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, he removes his clerical collar – a symbol of authority – and follows the instructions of organisers, many of whom are younger than him, and many of whom are women.
DeShazier and members of his Hyde Park University Church in Chicago, Illinois, decided that the youth, whom he describes as “faithful, but secular”, are “best positioned to lead this movement right now”. The role of the Church is “to be supportive of them in offering ourselves in the ways they show us they need us and to fill in the gaps as well.”
To fulfil this role, the congregation looks for ways to partner with young activists. DeShazier can name several instances where “we might reach out to them and say… ‘What do you need from us right now?’ And they say, ‘Just show up. Be in solidarity with us.’”
Jamell Spann, a young activist who demonstrated for months after the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, described similar best-practices for pastors at BLM protests. “The clergy would come out … and they would stand with us,” Spann told Leah Gunning Francis for her book, Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership and Awakening Community.
“They did not try to take over or commandeer our protest. They gave us the space and the ability we needed, as young people, to shift the narrative in the direction we felt it should go,” Spann said.
This foot-soldier approach contrasts with the front-and-centre roles of Black clergy during the Civil Rights era. Most of the Black leaders who were household names during the 1950s and 1960s – Martin Luther King, Jr, Ralph Abernathy, CT Vivian, John Lewis, James Lawson, and others – were ordained ministers. But Black clergy have been largely absent from the front lines of the mass protests that have gripped the United States over police brutality and systemic racism in recent years, underscoring the Black Church’s changing role in political movements.
The “Black Church” is widely understood to include churches whose congregations are predominantly African American, as well as churches affiliated with historically Black Protestant denominations.
Geneva Norman remembers Black churches as the only places where African Americans could safely gather in the 1960s and get information they could trust. “We would all come together in the churches to plan marches for voting, to pass along voting information,” the 73-year-old retired physician told Al Jazeera.
“There’s nothing that wasn’t done in the Black Church … it was the place where decisions were made,” she said.
Black clergy during the Civil Rights era were not merely leaders of individual congregations, they were also leaders of the Black community.
This was especially visible during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the mid-1950s. Jo Ann Robinson and other members of the Women’s Political Council, who planned the first boycott, enlisted the help of pastors, including Martin Luther King, Jr. Robinson believed that African Americans would not join the boycott without the support of Black clergy.
There’s nothing that wasn’t done in the Black Church (in the 1960s)… it was the place where decisions were made.
Ministers who attended an initial meeting at King’s church promised to promote the boycott at their Sunday services. On the following Monday, 90 percent of African American riders stayed off the buses. The organisers and clergy created the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to oversee the boycott and appointed the then-26-year-old King as its president. Thousands attended MIA’s first community meeting at the city’s largest Black church, where King laid out the plans for what would become a more than year-long action that helped launch the Civil Rights Movement.
Two years after the boycott, King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), described by researchers C Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H Mamiya “as the political arm of the Black Church”.
It was the SCLC that “gave decisive focus and direction to local church involvement in the Civil Rights Movement,” Lincoln and Mamiya found.
The SCLC coordinated the efforts of “hundreds of black clergymen and their congregations” as they made the “extraordinary sacrifices” required “to move the cause forward”, the two researchers said. “Black churches were the major points of mobilisation for mass meetings and demonstrations,” and “most of the local Black people who provided the bodies for the demonstrations were members of Black churches acting out of convictions that were religiously inspired.”
The successes of the Black Church and clergy during the Civil Rights era, however, may have contributed to their diminished role today. Younger generations who took advantage of educational opportunities previously denied to their elders, saw their career horizons expand and their fortunes improve.
As more African Americans joined the ranks of the professional class, especially in urban areas, the Black Church, though still deeply embedded in Black culture, no longer enjoyed a near-monopoly on Black leadership.
Today, a growing number of secular Black organisations offer alternative paths to those wanting to participate in or support racial justice advocacy.
Young Black Americans have also become less connected to Black churches than their elders. According to a recent Pew survey, just 27 percent of Black Millennials (ages 24 to 39) and 29 percent of Black Generation Z adults (ages 18 to 23) said they were members of Black congregations. That is compared with 46 percent of Baby Boomers (ages 56 to 74) and 49 percent of adults in the Silent Generation (those born before 1946) who said the same.
Black churches and clergy continue to help congregants make sense of race-motivated violence and understand BLM-relevant policy initiatives, but the Black community now has alternative sources and places to not only get reliable information but also strategise, organise and engage.
While Black churches and clergy are not as central as they once were, they remain important to Black life. For this reason, BLM activist Brianna Parker, an American Baptist minister and self-described data activist, conducted several surveys of the Black community, including some pastors, “to make sure we knew how to help [Black] churches get on board”.
Often used interchangeably, Parker noted that “BLM” can have 3 meanings: 1) the global BLM organisation, officially known as the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation; 2) the BLM mantra of “Black Lives Matter” (or #BlackLivesMatter) first used in 2013; and, 3) the BLM movement, a decentralised network of activists and more than 150 groups including the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation.
Black Christians have the assumption that Civil Rights-type movements will be led by clergy and they become less comfortable (when this is not the case.)
Parker told Al Jazeera that she found “a strong response”, including from ministers, to BLM. “Forty-plus percent of people polled said they would leave their churches for not supporting the movement or the mantra,” she said. “I was encouraged by the number because Black people don’t leave their churches over much.”
While many in the Black Church support the BLM mantra, Parker found that some people were uncomfortable with the BLM movement.
According to Parker, “Black Christians have the assumption that Civil Rights-type movements will be led by clergy and they become less comfortable” when this is not the case.
Some Black clergy and congregants are also uncomfortable with the BLM movement’s broad social reform agenda, which unapologetically embraces women leaders and LGBTQ rights.
With roots to the Second Great Awakening, when many enslaved Black people converted to Christianity, the born-again or evangelical tradition continues to have a strong influence on the Black Church. To this day, most congregations are male-dominated and led by charismatic, straight male pastors.
Though Black clergy and congregations typically champion progressive social justice causes, many hold conservative views on certain issues like women’s rights and same-sex marriage, especially in the South.
Organising joint Black Church/BLM protests can be challenging for other reasons. While Black pastors are often accustomed to wielding the most authority, this leadership style, or any other that tries to impose authority from above or outside, is roundly rejected by young activists.
Black Lives Matter co-founders Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi wanted to ensure that the BLM movement was decentralised so local activists could take charge of fighting race-related violence in their respective communities. For them, authentic leadership empowers individuals to become active participants in changing their circumstances. As they hoped, quasi-autonomous BLM leaders and groups have materialised in most major cities.
In Nashville, Tennessee, for example, then-l5-year-old Zee Thomas led protests two days after George Floyd’s death. In San Francisco, California, Tiana Day, only 17 at the time, organised the first BLM march over the Golden Gate Bridge in June. Other young activists led marches and rallies throughout the country. Most worked independently of the Black Church and clergy.
In contrast to the decentralised, and sometimes ad hoc structure of BLM, “a lot of pastors and churches just say, ‘I know how to do this, I’ve done this before. This is how we’re going to do it,’” Chicago-based Pastor DeShazier said.
But this approach has caused friction between Black pastors and young BLM organisers in the past, Deshazier explained.
He pointed to a march in November 2015 against the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald in Chicago. BLM protesters and supporters of Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition, Deshazier said, “were trying to have the same march at the same time.” While Jackson and other church leaders called for nonviolent protest, many young activists heeded the call of some BLM leaders for civil disobedience and physically blocked entrances to stores and verbally confronted holiday shoppers.
For DeShazier, this was “a case study of the real conversations that we need to have if we’re going to have a movement that truly represents the wisdom of both generations.”
Disputes over the use of violence – the resolutely non-violent stance of Black clergy versus a greater openness to violence by some young activists – recall similar tensions during the Civil Rights era.
The SCLC’s mission, as envisioned by King, was to enable Black clergy to draw on the organising power of Black churches as they worked to secure desegregation and voting rights. King used his authority to insist that all SCLC-sponsored actions remained non-violent.
With parallels to today, police forces during the Civil Rights era assaulted protesters with batons, knocked them down with water cannon, set dogs against them, and attacked them with tear gas. White supremacists forced cars and buses transporting freedom fighters off the road, and attacked and sometimes killed activists. In spite of such violence, the SCLC trained demonstrators not to strike back.
King and other Black pastors believed that the high moral standing and moral example set by the Black Church demanded non-violent, though not necessarily peaceful, protests. “We must make sure our hands are clean in the struggle,” he said in 1957. This continues to be embedded in the stance of many Black ministers who continue to see themselves and their congregations as moral standard-bearers today.
Black clergy of the Civil Rights era were also convinced that white citizens were more likely to support their cause if the movement remained strictly nonviolent, and more likely to condemn it if activists resorted to violence, even when police officers or agitators used force against them.
Like today’s young BLM activists, young African Americans in the 1960s joined together to campaign for Civil Rights. They formed the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC (pronounced “SNICK”), at the urging of Ella Baker, an organiser who worked for King and the SCLC. Baker rejected the patriarchal and autocratic structure of the SCLC. Instead, she counselled SNCC members to retain their independence and embrace a non-hierarchical, democratic leadership style, which she called “leaderful” leadership.
Heeding Baker’s advice and determined to maintain their autonomy, including from King and SCLC, SNCC members worked on their own projects and developed their own strategies and rules for civil disobedience.
The SCLC and SNCC carried out several successful campaigns together, but tension grew between the two organisations. Key members of the SNCC questioned the effectiveness of the nonviolence strategy, given the fact that the Black community, after decades of avoiding conflict, remained oppressed and segregated.
After some SNCC leaders looked the other way when violence broke out, or incited it themselves, King and the SCLC responded by sidelining them.
Decades later, in 2020, thousands of BLM protests took place following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others. While the vast majority of the protests remained peaceful, looting, vandalism, and direct confrontation took place in some cities. Differences over what counts as justifiable violence has caused some Black pastors to steer clear of BLM protests and refuse to serve as public advocates of the movement.
Black clergy and the Black Church have been most visible on the national stage when they have, from time to time, organised their own marches.
In Chicago, for example, Reverend Chris Harris of Bright Star Church and Reverend James Meeks of Salem Baptist Church partnered with 16 of the city’s Christian and Jewish leaders to lead a demonstration after Floyd’s murder. Meeks told the Religion News Service (RNS) at the time that it was important to have a peaceful march to “get back on message”.
In Brooklyn, New York, James T Roberson III, the lead minister of Bridge Church NYC, helped organise a “Prayerful Protest” on June 2 to protest against Floyd’s killing and “bring a blessing to the city”.
That same day, the Baptist Ministers Conference of Southern California led a faith-based rally outside the Los Angeles Police Department’s downtown headquarters. KW Tulloss, a Black pastor who helped organise the protest, told RNS, “When we had all these lootings and individuals that take advantage of certain aspects of peaceful protests, we said we wanted to do it right.”
But these protests have at times created tension with Black Lives Matter demonstrators. During the LA faith rally, some members of the clergy kneeled with police officers – a move that was criticised by some prominent Black Lives Matter leaders, including Melina Abdulla, co-founder of BLM-LA.
In challenging the pastors, Abdulla said, “Do not let this system of white supremacy define you and take you away from the community that is your home. You have to fight for Black people and that means all Black people. That means queer and trans Black folks.”
Like the protests led by Black pastors last summer, the civil rights era Montgomery Bus Boycott and the sit-ins to desegregate Nashville’s downtown lunch-counters were local efforts coordinated in Black churches with leadership from Black clergy.
But advocating for federal and state legislation and policy changes takes years of focused work, deep pockets, and well-placed connections. A paradigm-shift like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 required moving beyond short-term, community-led initiatives to a nationwide, collaborative effort. King and the SCLC achieved high visibility, in part, because they succeeded in translating, in the words of civil rights icon James Lawson, “the torture people felt from living in a segregated climate” into lasting policy changes.
It's going to take everybody to build the beloved community the way in which we want to see it (and) in the way in which we believe God would envision it for us.
Today, few national networks of Black clergy akin to the SCLC exist. After King’s death, the SCLC lost much of its effectiveness, weakened by frequent changes in leadership and lack of clear focus. Other networks are relatively unknown and lack the SCLC’s national platform and unifying power.
One network, the Black Church Political Action Committee, describes itself as promoting the equitable treatment of Black and Brown people and opposed to mass incarceration, voter suppression, and gun violence. The committee’s website makes no mention of “Black Lives Matter”. The Black Church Center for Justice and Equality, a consortium of 200 Black pastors, proposed a seven-point legislative agenda last year that echoed many of the calls of BLM, but did not mention the movement or its mantra. Neither organisation responded to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
While Black clergy are no longer at the forefront of today’s struggle for Civil Rights, many support the racial justice aims of the BLM movement, even if its larger agenda or its tactics keep some from joining its protests. Collaborating with trusted colleagues within their local networks, Black clergy contribute to the fight for Black lives.
Chicago-based Pastor DeShazier hopes that ultimately, Black clergy and the BLM movement “can be in partnership and learn from one another.”
“It’s going to take everybody to build the beloved community the way in which we want to see it [and] in the way in which we believe God would envision it for us,” he said.