To look back at the Black Church over the 20th century is to recall some of the most important moments in African-American history.
The fight for education.
The battle for civil rights.
The continuing quest for women's equality.
As in the preceding centuries, the Black Church of the 20th century was more than a place of worship. It was school, theater, community center, meeting ground, political engine, restorer of hope.
"The Church has always been the center of the Black community," says the Rev. Vashti M. McKenzie, pastor of Payne Memorial A.M.E. Church in Baltimore and one of the pioneer Black pastors of traditional Black Churches. "We have done more than preach the gospel, we have found ways of going beyond Sunday morning to ministering to people every day."
Like African-Americans, the Black Church has stood the storm of racism, sexism, economic and educational challenges by adjusting its mission to meet the needs of the times. Over these 100 years, the Black Church has emerged as a master innovator, building communities, stoking issues of social justice, shaping new musical traditions, resurrecting faith.
Perhaps the most enduring contribution of the 20th century Black Church was revitalizing Christianity. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Black and White ministers who followed him and the Freedom Movement changed the shape of worship, infusing new spirit and energy into religious thought, changing and renewing White ministers and laypeople who came within the range of its radiance.
The Rev. Dr. Otis Moss Jr., pastor of Cleveland's Olivet Institutional Baptist Church and former chairman of Operation Push, says, "One of the most remarkable and revolutionary contributions of the Black Church in the 20th century is to be found in the areas of transformation and liberation. The Church literally played a tranformational role in the whole of Christiandom in the 20th century, far beyond the borders of the United States of America, and the key figure in this transformation was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I boldly state that the liberation movement could not have been what it was, or achieved what it did without the dynamic leadership of the Black Church."
The Black Church also changed American democracy. The Rev. Dr. Robert Franklin, president of the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC), says, "the Black Church led the movement to rehabilitate American democracy, which reached its height during the Civil Rights Movement and the leadership of Dr. King and Church leaders who founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Without that Church-led movement, America might still be a nation marked by racial apartheid."
Thus, Dr. Franklin says, Dr. King and other Black clergy were internationally significant theologians and activists whose legacy is seen and felt every time a freedom fighter in Asia, Africa or South America sings `We Shall Overcome Someday'"
The ITC president points out that the Church has also helped form this century's political agenda through the emergence of Black ministers-political leaders, including Adam Clayton Powell, Andrew Young, Floyd Flake and Jesse Jackson. "They helped show that clergy could be political advocates and agents who could bring a moral analysis to American politics," he says.
Another contribution of the 20th century Black Church, religious experts say, is its work reviving and maintaining the spirit of African-American people. As in the days of slavery and segregation, the Black Church played a key role in maintaining the morale of Black Americans. In the Depression and during the days of World War I and II and in the White backlash following the Freedom Movement, the Black Church provided, as Dr. Franklin says, "the wherewithal for Black folk to face the tragedies and ambiguities of life on a weekly basis. The church gave us spiritual nourishment in …