Some Pastors Say the Black Church's Civil Rights Movement Legacy Is Both A Blessing And A Curse

5rtg0.jpgFor the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, the civil rights movement is not a period of time that only exists in history books; the movement runs deep in his veins -- literally.

Shirley Franklin, center, former mayor of Atlanta, joins hands with Walt Bryde, left, and Jeremiah Bridgewater, right, during the singing of 'We Shall Overcome' to conclude the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday commemorative service at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, Monday, Jan. 21, 2013, in Atlanta. The nation will honor civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, the same day as it celebrates the inauguration of the first black president to his second term. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
With a mother who was a secretary for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and a father who was an early organizer for the movement, an active minister and regional director for the SCLC, both of whom were eventually married to each other by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. himself, Moss has deeply rooted ties to the history of social activism.

As close family friends of not only the Kings, but also other noteworthy individuals like Fannie Lou Hamer, Ralph David Abernathy and Andrew Young, Moss' parents created an environment where spirituality and social responsibility were tied to one another.

"This was a part of my development," Moss told The Huffington Post. "It was really how I became engaged not only in social justice activity, but I was nurtured and educated in a church that said that love and justice and Jesus are connected. When love and justice come together they produce a baby: first name liberation, last name transformation. That's the kind of church I grew up in."

As senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, a congregation heavily engaged in community activism, Moss is a product of the kind of black church that comes to mind when thinking about the historic movement that affected so much change in the United States. The sort of church where members congregated before rallies, singing gospel songs and preparing to fight injustice, with a pastor who delivered fervent and inspiring speeches against inequality. But it is that exact characterization that some say has created a mythical legacy that the present-day church is struggling to live up to.

Reality v. Mythology

Like many African-Americans, Moss grew up believing most black churches were involved in social activism like his. However, he said that is a false assumption largely based on the glamorization of the civil rights movement.

"Many churches, black churches in particular, have proclivity for social justice. But there's only a remnant that have made that part of their mission," he said. "On one level it's bittersweet that everyone loves Dr. King and loves the Civil Rights Movement now that we can have a newseum gaze, but in the reality, for those who were participating, this was a life or death decision and it was a remnant of people."

The Rev. Nelson Rivers, vice president of stakeholder relations of the NAACP, agreed saying the fictitious characterization of the church is a challenge to the church's present standing.

"I think one thing that affects the black church today is the mythology of the black church's involvement of yesterday," he told The Huffington Post. "There's a growing consensus that justice must be on the black church's agenda, and that was not the case even in the old days."

Rivers said clergymen like King, Abernathy and Adam Clayton Powell had in fact split from conservative leaders who distanced themselves from the movement. As a result, their names -- Dr. King's most prominently--became synonymous with the Civil Rights movement, although in reality, pastors only made up a small sect of leaders and organizers.

"That was a myth created by an exaggerated reality because of the power and personality of King. But even the first march, the majority of the leaders were not preachers," he said. "A great disservice of the movement is to summarize it in the name of one person, it was never that. Too many people paid the price, including Dr. King."

It is that exact longing for messianic leadership that many say cripple not only the church's progress but the black community's as well, and fuel criticism of present-day leaders like the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

"I don't think a messianic leader structure is especially what we need right now," founder and senior pastor of Community of Hope A.M.E. Church in Maryland, the Rev. Tony Lee, told The Huffington Post. "If you look at the movement, it was about a whole lot more than King. The civil rights movement was about organizing on a fundamental, regular person level. The challenge right now is, we deal with people who want to be in the front of the movement but the movement has no infrastructure."

Source: Black Voices | Danielle Cadet
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