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How the Black Church Fueled a Movement

Using community and spirituality to combat racism, in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr.

Maggie Phillips
January 14, 2022
Religious Literacy in America
Tablet talks about Judaism a lot, but sometimes we like to change the subject. Maggie Phillips covers religious communities across the U.S.—from Christians to Muslims, Hindus to Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witnesses to pagans—to find out what they’re talking about.
See all in Religious Literacy in America →︎
Tablet Magazine; original images: Wikipedia; Library of Congress
Tablet Magazine; original images: Wikipedia; Library of Congress
Tablet Magazine; original images: Wikipedia; Library of Congress
Tablet Magazine; original images: Wikipedia; Library of Congress

When asked how long she’s been a member of First Baptist Church of Selma, Alabama, Louretta Wimberly said, “All my life.” She knew Martin Luther King Jr. personally; decades ago, when she was a student at Alabama State Teachers College and King was the pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, she used to babysit for the Kings after the birth of their first child. Decades later, she is now First Baptist’s preservation officer and clerk, and the 89-year-old chair emerita of Alabama Historical Commission’s Black Heritage Council Board.

When King spoke in Selma on Jan. 2, 1965, she said, the voting rights movement was “in full bloom” there. While the Historical Marker Database states that King spoke at the African Methodist Episcopal Brown Chapel on that date, according to Wimberly’s account, King first addressed crowds about a block away, at First Baptist.

“There was a Methodist situation,” Wimberly explained.

The leadership at Brown Chapel AME Church was having difficulty getting approval from their bishop to open their doors for civil rights organizing. While there is some controversy over what precisely was at issue over the delay from the bishop, unlike their Methodist counterparts, First Baptist was unencumbered by the need to run their decisions up a chain of command.

When used in popular and academic contexts, “the Black church” is a general term that usually includes the larger Black Protestant denominations in the U.S. It includes three Baptist national conventions: the National Baptist Convention, the National Baptist Convention of America, and the Progressive National Baptist Convention. The term also often generally involves the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and African Methodist Episcopal Zion Churches, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Church of God in Christ.

King had come out of the National Baptist Convention, and was close friends with Ralph Abernathy, also a frequent speaker at First Baptist Church of Selma around that time. Together with King, Abernathy had opposed Reverend J.H. Jackson’s bid for the presidency of the National Baptist Convention earlier in the decade. Jackson didn’t support lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides, and the ensuing schism created the Progressive National Baptist Convention, which favored the nonviolent protest methods of King and Southern Christian Leadership Council. It was the Progressive National Baptist Convention that ultimately provided what they describe as a “denominational home” to King. Abernathy was a founding member of the SCLC, and First Baptist served as a meeting site for it and other civil rights organizations, earning it the nickname “the Movement Church.”

Coupled with this set of circumstances, “each Baptist church is autonomous,” said Wimberly, which meant First Baptist would have had broader latitude than Brown Chapel to open their doors for King to speak.

Eventually, said Wimberly, Brown Chapel opened, and after King finished talking to the crowds at First Baptist (made up of students “and anybody who could get in there”), “we sneaked him around because [pro-segregationists] were seeking to get him then,” taking him out the back of the church.

Wimberly remembers the significance of First Baptist and other Black churches in Selma at the time, and the fact that they were owned by Black communities. “They could do what they wanted to do in their churches and the white community respected that and respected the ministers,” she said.

The Baptist faith holds a particular place in Black history. According to The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, a multipart film series by historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., among the first records of a Black-run institution in the U.S. was the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, which was founded in 1773.

“After we would go to work,” said Wimberly, the only thing the Black community had “was on the weekend, was our services.” The churches, she said, “were the community house,” and the locus of “activities for Black people.”

“We didn’t have much,” Wimberly said, “so we [would] do our little ball playing in the church grounds. They would have programs and bring in great speakers, people like Marian Anderson would come here, Booker T. Washington. Those kinds of people who would encourage us.”

But it wasn’t simply the big names who provided encouragement. “When you would go to church,” said Wimberly, “then you had leaders, ministers, and they extended into people the hope of what it meant for man, because we were all human beings, we were all made in God’s image. Therefore, because of our godly humanities, anything was possible if you only believed,” a message she said was instilled “from the little kindergarten class all the way up.”

“We learned that you could do anything you wanted to do,” said Wimberly, “if you trusted in the Lord. It didn’t matter what your color was, you were just as important.”

“They also,” she said, “taught us to love people, to forgive people. To be Christ-like.” 

King’s position as a prominent leader in the Baptist church in particular helped him to galvanize various religious and secular communities in the South to work for racial equality in the 1960s. Decades and generations later, the Black church’s paradigm of compassion, connection, and relationship that King championed remains instructive in today’s social justice landscape—even as religious affiliation declines.

“I do think that some kind of affiliation with a wisdom tradition, some kind of spiritual orientation is required to do long-term, sustained social justice work,” said Chloé Valdary, founder of Theory of Enchantment, an anti-racism curriculum that describes itself as being “led by the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

“Without that spiritual orientation,” said Valdary, “you run the risk of falling into a politics of resentment, and I don’t see how it is possible to not fall into it without a spiritual tradition to anchor you.”

Pew Research shows Black millennials and Gen Z members falling away from religious faith, placing them within a broader national trend. “I’m not sure how Gen Z is going to manifest spiritually,” Valdary said. “The fact that there’s a rise in people self-identifying as ‘nones’ doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a dwindling in spirituality and in fact, it could be that a different kind of spirituality emerges moving forward with Gen Z and others, people who are in search for a way to practice and to keep rituals but not in the traditional institutionalized way.”

Valdary puts Theory of Enchantment forward as a kind of example of this type of remixing of religion. “It certainly is informed by many different wisdom traditions, including Christianity, including elements of Taoism, including elements of Judaism, but it’s not an institution,” she said. “But it does try to transmit certain values, like agape love for example, into the workplace and through the lens of diversity and inclusion.”

The fact that there’s a rise in people self-identifying as ‘nones’ doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a dwindling in spirituality.

This concept of agape, a Greek word referring to transcendent, self-giving love, is laid out by the Apostle Paul in the New Testament, in 1 Corinthians 13 (the “love is patient, love is kind,” passage popular at many Christian weddings). With Theory of Enchantment, said Valdary, “we talk about agape love, we talk about where it comes from in the Christian wisdom tradition. We talk about how Dr. King and members of the civil rights movement emphasized it as kind of the highest value, actually. The aim and ideal of the civil rights movement was agape love, was to be able to practice and embody agape love, and agape love is what we are aiming to help people, including ourselves as facilitators, learn how to practice, because it’s very, very difficult to practice.”

King’s definition of the term sheds light on why this might be the case. “When we rise to love on the agape level,” said King in a 1957 sermon, “we love men not because we like them, not because their attitudes and ways appeal to us, but we love them because God loves them. Here we rise to the position of loving the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed that the person does.”

“There are other ways in which I could imagine these values being transmitted into places in untraditional ways, so it’s not necessarily that church attendance would correlate with capacity for seeing your human being as your fellow human being, but there could be other measures that might correlate with it in the future,” Valdary said.

To that end, Valdary contends that the community life at First Baptist Church as described by Wimberly is still crucial to combating racism. She points to the influence on her work of John Vervaeke, a cognitive scientist at the University of Toronto. “One of the things he’s pointed out is the danger of individual siloed self improvement. There are developments in human history that require people working with each other,” said Valdary. “One of the things we want to solve for at Theory of Enchantment is how to create communities of practice at scale. Learning how to be in relationship, which is ultimately what we’re talking about when we’re talking about not being siloed, is one of the primary tasks of Theory of Enchantment. DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] is fundamentally a relational practice, it doesn’t make sense to do it in an individual context.”

Wimberly agrees. “This country wouldn’t be what it is,” she said, without “all of us coming together and putting our abilities together. We are a great country because we are diverse. A lot of the inventions that have come about because of that.”

On the communal character of the Black church in the South and its relationship to King, Valdary cites Christopher Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven. In his book, Lasch contends that King’s movement encountered obstacles in the industrialized North that were different from those in the more blatantly, institutionally racist South. In Lasch’s estimation, Black people in the South were empowered by church membership, Valdary said. “There’s something to be said about the fact that yes, there was a siloing in the sense that [the Black and white churches] were separated by race, but at the same time, the Black church was such a strong financially independent source of pride for Black Americans that [its existence] actually is what made people want to fight for integration in the first place.”

“For me, the church has always been important for Black people,” Wimberly said. “They always believed that there was somebody greater than you, and you can become whatever he wants you to be.”

“That was the only thing we owned,” said Wimberly of the Black church, noting that King’s successes didn’t occur in a vacuum, but were rather a culmination of previous generations’ hard work. “As a result of that, look where we are today, some of our greatest leaders have come out of churches.”

For America, like the “children of God” described in 1 John, chapter 3, “it has not yet been revealed what we shall be” as a nation, whether that’s with regard to race, to belief, or to living in community. But as we survey the progress brought about by the 20th-century civil rights movement, it is clear that what we are today owes a debt to the Black church, the Baptist tradition, and the collective values that informed King’s radical vision.

This story is part of a series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.

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