“Church tradition is strongly focused on a single male leader,” explains Janaya Khan, International Ambassador for Black Lives Matter. “This movement that we have now in Black Lives Matter has been led and informed by women, gays and transgenders – you know, the despised despised.”
The tension is indicative of a larger, ongoing conflict between activists, religious centers and age groups. Some organizers feel alienated by parts of the doctrines of the Black Church and religious people struggle with how to embrace the Black Lives Matter movement and all its members.
Some members of the old Black Church Guard say that dynamism has always been part of the debate between churches and movement leaders, or between churches, about the best way to get involved in the pursuit of civil rights.
Lewis died of pancreatic cancer on July 17, the same day his friend and co-activist, Reverend CT Vivian died. Like many titans in the struggle for black civil rights in the 1960s, Lewis and Vivian’s connections to the Church were inseparable from their organization.
Lewis, whose higher education started at a Baptist college, grew up preach to the chickens on his family farm and considered a career in church before going into politics. Vivian himself was a minister in addition to his work as a political strategist and hosted Nashville’s first desegregation sit-ins while still in seminary. King once called Vivian “the greatest preacher to ever live.”
These connections to the Church provided both men with a moral compass for the nonreligious spaces they occupy, whether in Lewis’ capacity as congressional conscience or Vivian’s long-standing White House post, where he gave citizen advice to four sitting U.S. presidents.
“You can’t get a 1950s and ’60s civil rights movement without the Church,” said Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor at Ebenezer Church and a Democratic candidate for the seat of the United States Senate in Georgia. “When we see those protesters on the street, it is literally the black church that flows into the public square from the pews – singing, to redeem the soul of America.”
Today’s activists protesting the murder of George Floyd and racist police work embrace the core message that has informed the life work of Lewis and Vivian: Civil rights issues are moral issues.
But there are some important differences between the current Movement for Black Lives, as is known after Floyd, and previous civil rights campaigns. While many black churches were locations for organizing meetings and safe havens for organizers, demonstrations today usually center on social media, in the homes of allies, or on the streets themselves.
What’s more, the decentralized structure of the Black Lives Matter movement goes against the framework of black churches, often led by a single person or a small group of people.
And unlike most leaders of previous Black LED movements, Black Lives Matter is not primarily driven by men. Women and members of the LGBTQ community are among the founders of Black Lives Matter, as are many leaders from over 40 chapters across the country.
“I think the black church has failed to heal the problems of patriarchy and homophobia. And those two issues are fundamental to the Black Lives Matter movement, ”said Cornel West, professor of philosophy at Harvard University. “White domination [is] disaster. The black church has traditionally tried to tackle the frontal and was often beautiful. But male supremacy, homophobia and transphobia are also bad. They should hit those with the same intensity level when they hit white supremacy. That is the challenge and test of the Black Church today. ‘
Members of the clergy have publicly acknowledged this break. A group of theologians came in June has made a public statement in support of Black Lives Matter, recognizing the connections to the Biblical teachings they study. Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman, assistant professor of theology and African American religion at Yale University, wrote the letter.
“We have … forgotten who we are as a church and we have turned into a certain kind of white, devout evangelicalism that really makes us act in a black face,” said Turman. “We have rejected the intersection of justice and justice and community from this idea of personal piety.”
However, activists from generation to generation and belief agree: while their efforts may look different, it is impossible to have one without the other.
What ‘is often missed about what these movements have in common is that we may not be of a religious tradition, but we are definitely of a spiritual tradition,’ said Khan, citing the examples of Lewis and Ella Baker, another civil rights tolerant with ties to church. “There is something inherently supernatural and spiritual about the work of social justice and the work of change.”
The goals of the Black Lives Matter movement also intersect the goals of many liberation-oriented black churches: self-sustaining, politically empowered black communities, equal access to resources, and deep respect for public security.
Al Sharpton, Baptist minister and founder of the National Action Network, said rewriting the movement would suggest suggesting that the movement’s conflict with the Church is a new phenomenon.
“This is nothing new,” said Sharpton. Martin Luther King called it “creative tension.” We need push and pull between different disciplines and different tactics to think of the best way. ”
Sharpton pointed out that of the 1960s Big Six civil rights leaders who coordinated March 1 over Washington – James Farmer, Roy Wilkins, A. Phillip Randolph, Whitney Young, King, and Lewis – only one, King, was a preacher. Many, as in the case of Roy Wilkins, were often hostile to the Church as an organizational tool and felt that it was standing in the way of the movement’s goals. It’s a pattern that repeats itself in the Black Lives Matter era, Sharpton argued.
“It’s not that you don’t have church leaders who don’t disagree with me,” he said. “And it’s not that you don’t have Black Lives Matter people saying ‘he’s not with us, even though he’s black, and he says yes.’ The search is on all sides. Can we make it all work is the challenge. ”
Two of Black Lives Matter’s founders, Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza, have spoken at National Action Network events and have gone to Sharpton’s show to “show operational unity.” Younger activists have postponed their organization to Sharpton, as was the case in Minneapolis at George Floyd’s funeral, where it was believed that Sharpton would deliver Floyd’s eulogy.
In addition, activists of all generations, genders and sexual and religious orientations are united in their vision of how Lewis’ civil rights record has informed the work they have done and are still doing. His legacy has now turned out to be particularly critical, following protests against racism and police brutality lasting more than two months that have made Lewis’ quintessential expression ‘good difficulties’ relevant again.
Former President Barack Obama spoke from the pulpit of Lewis’ funeral at Ebenezer Baptist Church about the biggest political issues of the day: voting rights, fair representation by Congress, and the presence of federal agents in American cities.
“We may no longer have to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar to cast a vote, but even while we’re here, there are those in power who are trying to discourage people from voting by closing polling stations and targeting minorities and students with restrictive identity laws and attacking our right to vote with surgical precision, “said Obama, the country’s first black president.
But Lewis’s work, Obama continued, “expressed belief in our establishment.”
Several organizers said Lewis’s legacy has helped them push the boundaries of what could be possible in their work.
Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, summoned Lewis’ words from his March 1 speech in Washington in her address to the Democratic National Committee platform meeting on Monday.
“Coming back to Lewis,” we are now involved in a serious revolution, “said Cullors, who borrowed the language from his March speech to Washington. Cullors encouraged Democrats to embrace “sea changes” recommended by the Black Lives Matter movement, namely the BREATHING Act, which would limit federal capacity to deploy police services to cities and drastically reduce the defense budget.
“It’s not enough to sit alone at the table, we want to create a table or we want to turn the table over,” said Angela Peoples, an organizer and director of Black Womxn For, an organization that supports the political power of black women and non- conforming people. “But even to be able to name that as something we want or think we can do is only because those who have gone before us have pushed their existence and reality to look beyond what is possible.”
This was true even of physical danger, something that has been linked to Lewis’s legacy as a demonstrator. Jesse Jackson, former presidential candidate and founder of the multi-ethnic organizing Rainbow Coalition, said Lewis “became immortal” on Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday in 1965. On that day, Lewis’ skull was cracked by a state-owned club with a billy club .
“John never stopped fighting,” said Jackson. “He was not afraid and was always a very gentle and hard-hearted person.”
He also focused on the future, even in his last days: One of the last pieces of legislation Lewis supported was the Justice in Policing Act, which aims to limit police brutality. The bill, which would establish a national standard for police tactics and limit the use of force by officers, was passed in the House on June 25, exactly one month after Floyd was murdered.
Kayla Reed, director of the Action St. Louis organizing group and co-creator of the Movement for Black Lives’ Electoral Justice Project, said Lewis’s legacy inspired her activist career.
“I think it makes clear what is possible,” said Reed. “When we think about how some people start and end movements, that movement [work] is actually a lifelong commitment. ‘