The last of the black preachers who came up in the era of Martin Luther King Jr. are nearing retirement, giving way to a generation who learned about the civil rights movement instead of living through it.
It’s a transition that carries both challenges and opportunities for pastors and churches committed to continuing the social justice work of the previous generation.
“If you have an institution that is constituted around a dynamic, charismatic personality, can it continue to exist when that person steps down?” asked Melissa Harris-Lacewell, associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University.
For the Rev. Thomas Johnson Jr., preaching a social justice gospel is still viable and necessary — even without King and his compatriots.
“God is always raising up a voice or voices to speak to the needs of the present day,” said Johnson, installed less than a year ago at Harlem’s Canaan Baptist Church of Christ. What’s important, he said, is to follow the example that King and others set of working for justice.
Among Johnson’s prized possessions are photographs that show King and his predecessor, the Rev. Wyatt T. Walker, being held in the jail cell in Birmingham, Ala., where King wrote his civil rights clarion call.
The new generation definitely has its work cut out in terms of reaching people who may be paying more attention to today’s prosperity gospel, which focuses more on personal health and well-being.
“I think there’s an enormous social-justice, gospel-education agenda that faces this generation that succeeds some of the towering figures in the black pulpit,” said Robert Franklin, professor of social ethics at Emory University.
Lions of the movement step down
Along with Walker, a number of well-known pastors — many with ties to King — have either retired recently or announced plans to do so.
The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, stepped down from the pulpit at the Greater New Light Baptist Church in Cincinnati last year. The Rev. James A. Forbes Jr., the first black senior minister at New York’s Riverside Church, will retire in June.
Rev. William H. Gray III, the third generation of his family to lead Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia, will step down next month. And the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. has announced he will step down from Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago in 2008.
“I think one of the mistakes that we make is to institutionalize a person rather than institutionalize a movement. Guys like me moving on, passing the torch to a new generation of young folk is good. That’s positive,” Gray said.
“In each generation people come and they affirm their commitment,” Shuttlesworth said.
A new generation of leadership could also provide an opportunity, a way to make struggle for civil rights more relevant and not something that ended decades ago, said Harris-Lacewell.
“I think it’s potentially really healthy for us to move away from imagining that the social gospel theologically or the civil rights movement politically started with or ended with Martin Luther King,” she said.
“It might actually be good to move into a new generation that has to make claims and arguments for civil rights that are not rooted in a movement that’s 40 years old.”