Years in RELIGION
Activism and growth of new denominations change Black Church
IN the 45 years since the ending of World War II, the African-American religious community has shared fully in the dramatic changes that have been occurring in the larger society. As in the aftermath of every war in which African-Americans have participated, the surrender of Japan triggered an intensification of historic struggle for full civil rights and non-discriminatory practices in all aspects of national life. Numerous African-American clergy and their congregations were critical players in this unfolding drama. In this, they continued a long-established tradition of being concerned both with the salvation of souls and with issues relating to equal justice for all.
The "return to normaley" in the first year of the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower was dramatically interrupted when the Supreme Court nullified the "separate but equal" doctrine in the case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. This decision precipitated a wave of challenges in the courtrooms and in the streets of America which lasted into the early 1970s. African-American churches and many of their clergy would play pivotal roles in this dramatic era in the nation's history. Nowhere was this more clearly in evidence than in the events surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the meteoric rise to leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This sequence of events beginning in 1956 was midwife to what is now referred to as the Civil Rights Movement. It provided the impetus for the founding of the consciously Christian Southern Christian Leadership Conference and that of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.
The White House and the Congress responded to escalating demands for civil and voting rights by enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the Voting Rights Act of 1990, and the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. Though the national media tended to focus upon the activities of Martin Luther King Jr. (SCLC), Roy Wilkins (NAACP), or Whitney Young (Urban League), in countless communities across the nation, a variety of groups, frequently clergy-led, were agitating and demonstrating for equal social, political and economic justice. Much of their activity would have been impossible if church buildings had not been available for meetings and for training demonstrators and as assemblage sites for demonstrators. In addition, the religious community provided bail bonds, and financial and moral support for persons actively involved in the movement.
By the mid-'60s, it had become clear that access to establishments serving the public and even to the ballot box was of little effect unless the economic circumstances of African-Americans were improved. As a consequence, the struggle was intensified for enhanced employment opportunities, for improved education and training, for affordable housing, and for equal access to political office and power. This social upheaval, fueled by riots and unrest, was particularly turbulent in Northern cities. In the press it was referred to as the "crisis in the city." At the same time the movement lost much of its religious patina and rhetoric, and clergy leadership became less dominant.
The role of the churches began to change as well. They now became places where government-funded programs such as Headstart, child-care and feeding were housed. They also became sponsors of government-funded housing and provided after-school tutorial programs for children along with a variety of other services for the communities.
The cry for "Black Power" was heard within the churches as well. In 1966 a group of clergy and laity, most of whom held membership in predominantly White denominations, organized themselves informally as the National Committee of Black Churchmen and, gathered at the Statute of Liberty, issued a statement on "Black Power." In this declaration NCBC affirmed the use of power in the struggle for justice. …