The significance of the Black Church in American history
By JoAnn Watson
Special to the Michigan Citizen
The Black Church and the Black Movement in America have always been bound by an unambiguous umbilical cord. Denmark Vesey, an African who was enslaved in South Carolina, was a co-founder of a branch of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1817. He later planned a rebellion in the United States in 1822. Richard Allen, an abolitionist, business owner and activist, founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Penn., as the first Black Church in the United States, Bethel A.M.E. He served as the first bishop and organized churches throughout the nation, as Blacks were being forced to endure segregation, which did not allow Blacks equal access nor the right to take the sacrament of communion.
The meeting of Frederick Douglass and John Brown at Detroit’s historic Second Baptist Church is well-chronicled. As is that church’s role in facilitating safe passage for Harriet Tubman’s passengers in the Underground Railroad.
The link between the Black Church and the Civil Rights Movement is evident in the lives of the leaders within both institutions. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Nobel Prize winner, founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), unarguably one of the greatest social justice transformers of the 20th century, and an orator without peer. But Dr. King was, above all, a product of the Black Church. He was a preacher, the son of a preacher and a founder of the Progressive Baptist Convention. He actualized the priorities of his faith in his sermons, writings, organizing, and ultimately, with the sacrifice of his life. Dr. King was the very embodiment of the Black Church’s sacred union with Black history makers.
Detroit has played a significant role in harvesting a rich crop of history makers planted in the rich, fertile soil of The Black Church. While not exhaustive, the list of said history makers includes: the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam; Malcolm X (El Hajj Malik El Shabazz); Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman (aka Rev. Albert B. Cleage), founder of the Shrine of The Black Madonna; Rev. Milton Henry, Esq. (aka Gaidi Obadele), one of the founders of the Republik of New Afrika, co-founder of the Freedom Now Party, co-founder of the Group on Advanced Leadership (GOAL), legal counsel for Malcolm X, and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church; a litany of Black Church leaders who presided over the Detroit NAACP, including Rev. Charles Hill, Rev. William C. Ardrey, Rev. Dr. Frederick G. Sampson, Rev. Dr. Charles G. Adams, and Rev. Wendell Anthony, among others.
Rev. Dr. Clarence Le Vaughn (C.L.) Franklin played a pivotal role among Black Church Leaders prominent in the Civil Rights Movement. Rev. Dr. C.L. Franklin received national recognition among Black ministers for his prowess in broadcasting his sermons and touring with gospel artists (like his famous daughter, Aretha). Rev. Dr. Franklin was the chairman of a consortium of several hundred Black churches, unions and community-based organizations. These groups organized a massive “Walk to Freedom” march, held June 23, 1963. According to reports, the march drew an estimated 125,000 to 200,000 people responding to the theme of “Jobs, Peace and Freedom.”
Rev. Franklin personally invited Dr. King to keynote the event. To serve on the planning committee for the march, Dr. Franklin requested the assistance of UAW President Walter Reuther, Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman, Tony Brown, Judge James Del Rio, “Reparations” Ray Jenkins, Elder Kwame Atta, Richard Henry (aka Dr. Imari Obadele), Rev. Milton Henry, Esq. (aka Gaidi Obadele) and Rev. S. L. Jones, among others. Under the leadership of Rev. Dr. C.L. Franklin, Detroit’s successful Walk to Freedom generated thousands of dollars which was donated to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s SCLC organization; and to help fund the National March on Washington, convened on Aug. 28, 1963, with 250,000 attendees.
When Malcolm X delivered a powerful “Message to the Grassroots” at a special meeting hosted by King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit, Rev. Milton Henry recorded the historic speech with equipment borrowed from his friend, Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records, just as he had earlier recorded Dr. King’s immortal “Dream” speech.
Modern times offer broader illustrations of Black clergy who have skillfully woven Black History and Black Social Economic Political Empowerment into their ministry. As evidenced by the foregoing, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Church and the leaders within both, have always and will likely continue to be bound by an inextricable bond with the goal of serving the needs of and optimizing the opportunities of members of the Black community. The vitality of either institution is dependent upon the strength of the bond between the two.
The Honorable JoAnn Watson is a former Detroit City Council member. She served 10 years from 2003 to 2013.