Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Superstar Reverend J. M. Gates and Working Class Black Uplift

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Superstar Reverend J. M. Gates and Working Class Black Uplift

Article excerpt

"I think the password of this country should be of today: stay out of the chain store." (1)

During his heyday in the 1920s and '30s, Reverend J. M. Gates of Atlanta's Rockdale neighborhood produced a steady stream of recorded sermons on popular record labels, selling hundreds of thousands of copies nationwide to black audiences, who were thirsting to hear outstanding "straining preachers": strong, melodic, fire and brimstone, get down-style pastors. Advertisement courtesy of the Chicago Defender.

Reverend J. M. Gates of Atlanta's Rockdale neighborhood was a superstar black preacher in a city full of black clergy. During his heyday in the 1920s and '30s, Gates produced a steady stream of sermons on national and popular record labels, selling hundreds of thousands of copies nationwide to black audiences thirsting to hear outstanding "straining preachers": strong, melodic, fire and brimstone, get down-style pastors. From 1926-1941, Gates put out more than 200 sides on 78 rpm discs, recording in Atlanta as well as Chicago, New York, New Orleans, Memphis, and South Carolina. (2)

During the second half of the 1920s, Gates recorded with a feverish pace, traveling around the country and laying down tracks to feed a hot market. Now the preacher was ready to take on chain stores--hated symbols of the impersonal capitalism that triggered a widespread anti-chain store campaign during 1929 and 1930. Reverend Gates was known for his powerful voice and an uncanny ability to stir his congregation's emotions, but for this message he had chosen a more pensive tone. The recorded sermon "Good Bye to Chain Stores, Pt. 1" represented the more subdued end of his oratorical spectrum. Gates enunciated each word carefully, creating an aura of somber and almost scholarly contemplation.5

The sermon promoted Gates's view of proper shopping habits and the importance of patronizing local (white) merchants. Interplay with the congregation formed the central part of the Reverend's delivery. Gates listened carefully to the lament of a lost lamb, a deacon who had not been to church in several weeks. The deacon's voice, reflecting the agony of embarrassment, was weak as he apologized for missing church, but "[t]he place I was working at, you see, the white folks went out of business 'cause the chain store ruined them." The pastor, murmuring his displeasure and empathy, turned the deacon's comment into a teaching moment. He wanted to prevent any more souls from losing their jobs and, as a ripple effect, their good standing with God. This, for now, meant accepting the devil you know:

   You just as well to patronize the independent merchant. Patronize
   the hometown merchant. You have a reason. First reason is this:
   who's gonna credit you? Second reason: who's buying your mule for
   the country people? When they come to town, spending cash money,
   who's gonna let you have a mule on a credit? Who's gonna let you
   have a wagon on a credit? Who's gonna let you have an automobile,
   or help you to get one and let you pay for it when you can? Who's
   gonna put up with the boll weevil eatin' up everything you're
   tryin' to make, and then crediting you and feeding you? Is the
   chain store people gonna do it? No. They never have done it, and
   never will. (4)

The congregation greeted the Reverend's points with steady insertions of approval. Gates lectured and gently chided his flock, using a sizable emotional toolkit to drive home his message. He turned his attentions toward one female congregant, wondering if he saw her coming out of the chain store. She declared emphatically that the Reverend was mistaken: "Well, you must have thought it. Not me. I trade right around the corner there with that man that gives me my credit anytime." Gates, satisfied, responded approvingly: "That's what you ought to do." With a problem identified, its impact on congregants' lives demonstrated, and a solution clearly laid out, the pastor was pleased. …

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