In what ways has the African-American church been the center of social and political life for the African-American community, historically.

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It would very difficult, and quite impractical, to minimize the importance of “the Black Church” to the African American community over the course of centuries.  In their 1990 study of precisely this topic, The Black Church in the African American Experience, C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya note,

“. . .the impact of the Black Church on the spiritual, social, economic, educational, and political interests that structure life in America – including the mainline white churches themselves – can scarcely be overlooked in any realistic appraisal of our common religious experience.”

Religious observance, and the unifying role of churches across the multitude of denominations to which African Americans have historically identified, has been integral to that community’s existence.  From the “Negro spirituals” of the slave era to the more militant, separatist approach of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, cast into the public consciousness by virtue of his affiliation to the incumbent president of the United States, the role of the church has been enormous.  Reverend Wright’s 2012 speech at a predominately African American Washington, D.C. church included the following comment regarding the evils of racial integration:

“There is white racist DNA running through the synapses of their under-brain tissue. . .They will kill their own kind, defend the enemies of their kind or anyone who is perceived to be the enemy of the milky white way of life.”

How representative such sentiments are to the African American community at large – and this constitutes no attempt to conclude one way or another – the importance of the Black Church to the spiritual and political development of that community is substantial.  The main Black Christian denominations -- Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal – all incorporate theological elements derived from the common African heritage, and all reflect that heritage in how church services are structured.  The Church provides a spiritual and social gathering place around which some black communities coalesce – a testament to the enduring legacy of racial segregation.  Again, to quote from Lincoln and Mamiya’s study:

“The Christianity that was spread among slaves during the First and Second Awakenings was an evangelical Christianity that stressed personal conversion through a deep regenerating experience, being ‘born again.’  The spiritual journey began with an acknowledgement of personal sinfulness and unworthiness and ended in an emotional experience of salvation by God through the Holy Spirit.  The rebirth meant a change, a fundamental reorientation in the approach to life.  While white Christians also stressed personal conversion,, the historical and narrative evidence indicate that the black conversion and visionary experience was of a qualitatively different level.”

The religious history of African Americans is intricately interwoven with the political growth of the African American community.  As one professor of black and Hispanic studies has noted, the success of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was in small measure attributable to the relationship of black clergy to the movement’s leadership.  In effect, the near-total overlap of the two:

“A major reason for the movement’s success was its religious leadership. The Reverends Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young, Fred Shuttlesworth, Wyatt T. Walker, Joseph Lowery, and Jesse Jackson were just a few of the gifted religious figures who played a national leadership role in the movement. In many instances black clergy became the spokespeople for campaigns articulating the grievances of black people, and they became the strategists who shaped the objectives and methods of the movement that sought to redress those grievances. Furthermore, they were able to win the allegiance of a large number of people and convince them to make great sacrifices for racial justice.” [Clarence Taylor, “African American Religious Leadership and the Civil Rights Movement,” linked below]

In conclusion, the Black Church has played an integral role in the evolution of the African American population over the centuries.  One can, and probably should, note the importance over the past two decades of the growth of Islam in the United States, in particular among African Americans. [See “The Future of the Global Muslim Population,”]  Religion continues to play a major role in the lives of many African Americans, and the increasing number identifying themselves as Muslim deserves acknowledgement in any discussion of the Black Church.