The Alabama Church That Launched a Movement and a King

By Smith, Vern E. | The Crisis, September/October 2005 | Go to article overview

The Alabama Church That Launched a Movement and a King


Smith, Vern E., The Crisis


The Alabama Church that Launched a Movement and a King Fighting the Good Fight: The Story of the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, 1865-1977 By Houston Bryan Roberson (Routledge, $22.95)

Is there a "new" Black church? With the rise of so-called "mega churches" that focus on the individual piety and character-building of "kingdom theology" or "One World Order," the traditional "liberation theology" that characterized Black churches at their founding is being challenged like never before.

Reviving the social justice agenda in today's Black church to counter a gospel of "praise and prosperity" has become a major goal of groups such as the Chicago-based Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, as churches increasingly become the connecting point for conservative politicians seeking the Black vote.

At its core, of course, the moral outlook of the Black church has traditionally been conservative in terms of family, faith and character-building. But its leaders, prodded sometime from within and often by external forces that have made the plight of African Americans difficult to ignore, developed a social justice gospel that made faith and action hallmarks of Black theology.

In Fighting the Good Fight: The Story of the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, 1865-1977, author Houston Bryan Roberson traces the evolution of this liberation theology at one of the most prominent churches of the civil rights era. He charts its birth in the aftermath of slavery through the halting first steps of independence that would ultimately embolden its members to confront I head-on the race issues of their day.

Through interviews with key church elders, review of the Montgomery, Ala., church's documents and analysis of the tenure of its two most prominent ministers - Vernon Johns and Martin Luther King Jr. - Roberson deftly chronicles the metamorphosis of Dexter's membership from accommodationist to activist to history-making.

Roberson, an associate professor of history at the University of the South in Sewanee, Term., does a good job of capturing the human drama of an institution born in the tumult of defining full American citizenship after the Civil War. Slaves and free Blacks had participated in an uneasy joint worship with Whites at Montgomery's First Baptist Church before the Civil War. Soon after emancipation, the Rev. Isaac Taylor Tichenor sought to reassure skittish White congregants that it would be business as usual at the church.

Stifled by their back-hand treatment at the church, however, Blacks were eager to create a community space in which they could worship without being relegated to the basements and former slave galleries. …

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