Rev. Clay Evans, Famed Chicago Pastor, Civil Rights Leader, and Gospel Singer, Dies at 94

The Rev. Clay Evans, legendary gospel singer, choirmaster and celebrated Baptist minister who became a fast ally to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his effort to expose the slum conditions black Chicago residents endured, has died.

Evans linked King to other ministers interested in his Operation Breadbasket program, which sought to improve conditions for blacks and open jobs at all-white supermarket chains and bottling companies. “I try to embody the principles of Christianity, and for me that means being dedicated to freedom and equality,” Evans told a Tribune reporter in 1974.

Evans died Wednesday at his home on the city’s South Side, a spokeswoman for the retired pastor said. He was 94.

But the Tennessee-born cleric gained national notoriety for his rousing sermons, energetic storytelling style performed on television with his choirs, and for helping to introduce black gospel music to the mainstream.

Gifted with a recognizable husky baritone that could have just as easily fronted a big jazz band, he performed as a soloist on songs such as “I’m Going Through.” He also performed with his Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church choir, known as The Ship, and later with the African American Religious Connection Mass Choir.

Evans produced dozens of gospel albums and helped popularize broadcast ministry in the 1970s with his “What a Fellowship” TV program.

Evans’ music program began airing on Channel 38 in 1977. “Music was a gift that he had, and he was committed to inspire … and share the good news with people,” said the Rev. Charles Jenkins, current pastor of Evans’ Fellowship church, who plans to step down at the end of this year.

But it was Evans’ role as a champion for civil rights and a mentor to other black clergy where he was most integral, his supporters said. Ordained a baptist minister in 1950, Evans was both a leader and behind-the-scenes player who helped launch the ministerial careers of many up-and-coming ministers who would make an impact, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Consuella York, the first African American woman to be ordained into the clergy in Chicago by her denomination.

It was Evans’ work with Jackson and King that set the stage for his work that blended ministry with community activism, particularly aimed at Chicago’s political machine, which long excluded or ignored African American concerns. Some of the work done by Evans’ community action forced white-owned companies to open jobs closed to African Americans. His work with Jackson, and later the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, was believed to have opened thousands of jobs for black workers, according to the King Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.

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SOURCE: Chicago Tribune, William Lee