John Lewis was eulogized Thursday afternoon at the same historic Atlanta church that Martin Luther King Jr. once presided over, a nod to the centrality of the Black church for Lewis and other Civil Rights leaders of his generation.
The church’s role is now changing. Even as they inherit Lewis’ mantle, Black Lives Matter organizers say the Black church does not serve as the organizing hub, haven and heartbeat for their movement that it did in the 1950’s and 60’s.
It’s yet another sign that the Civil Rights movement is undergoing a generational transformation, and is taking on the characteristics of the young, less traditional and decidedly less religious organizers now filling the streets.
“The church tradition has been very much focused on a singular male leader,” Janaya Khan, international ambassador for Black Lives Matter, explained. “This movement that we have now in Black Lives Matter has been led by and informed by women, queer and trans people — you know, the despised of the despised.”
The tension is emblematic of a larger, ongoing conflict between activists, religious centers and age groups. Some organizers feel alienated by parts of the Black church’s doctrines and people of faith are grappling with how to embrace the Black Lives Matter movement and all of its members.
Some members of the old guard Black churches say that dynamic has always been part of the debate between churches and movement leaders, or among churches, themselves, on the best way to get involved in the push for civil rights.
Lewis died of pancreatic cancer on July 17, the same day his friend and fellow activist, Rev. C.T. Vivian, passed away. Like many titans in the fight for Black civil rights in the 1960s, Lewis and Vivian’s connections to the church were inextricable from their organizing.
Lewis, whose higher education began at a Baptist college, grew up preaching to the chickens on his family farm and considered a career in the church before entering politics. Vivian, himself was a minister in addition to his work as a political strategist and organized Nashville’s first desegregation sit-ins while still in seminary. King once called Vivian, “the greatest preacher who ever lived.”
These connections to the church provided both men with a moral compass for the non-religious spaces they occupied, whether in Lewis’ capacity as the conscience of Congress or Vivian’s long standing post at the White House, where he provided civil rights counsel to four sitting U.S. presidents.
“You don’t get a civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s without the church,” said Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor at Ebenezer Church and a Democratic candidate for Georgia’s U.S. Senate seat. “When we see those marchers in the streets, that’s literally the black church pouring out of the pews into the public square — singing, in order to redeem the soul of America.”
The activists protesting the killing of George Floyd and racist policing today embrace the core message that informed Lewis and Vivian’s life work: civil rights issues are moral issues.
But there are some key differences between the current Movement for Black Lives, as it is known post-Floyd, and prior civil rights campaigns. While many Black churches were sites of planning meetings and safe havens for organizers, demonstrations in this era tend to find their center on social media, in the homes of allies or on the streets themselves.
More, the decentralized structure of the Black Lives Matter movement runs counter to the framework of Black churches, which are often led by a single person or small group of people.
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