POLITICS

Black Churches Led The Civil Rights Movement. Can They Do It Again In Baltimore?

06/14/2015 11:15 am ET | Updated Sep 08, 2015

pastor baltimore gray
The Rev. Jamal Bryant and others raise their fists during a protest march around the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center, Friday, May 1, 2015, in Baltimore. State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced criminal charges against all six officers suspended after Freddie Gray suffered a fatal spinal injury while in police custody in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

On the day that Freddie Gray was laid to rest, nine of Baltimore’s senior ministers gathered at New Shiloh Baptist Church to lead his funeral.

That evening, they reconvened at New Shiloh and debated how to intervene in a riot.

Two clergymen urged that they wade into the fray and ask agitators to stand down. Others were skeptical, unsure they could have much impact, according to three people in the room. They left the room with no agreement. But in the meantime, the church had filled with additional clergy, who had heard that New Shiloh was becoming a center for riot response.

Feeling strength in numbers, the clergy went into the streets. They marched, arms linked, singing hymns, past fires and over broken glass. They quickly encountered a column of riot police. Unsure of the group, the officers beat their batons on their shields in warning. The pastors made themselves known by dropping to the ground in prayer. Soon, they were leading the police toward an intersection the officers had been unable to secure for firefighters to get through.

The Rev. Donté Hickman of Southern Baptist Church was one of the clergymen who pushed for the march.

“All we wanted to be was a presence, saying here are the leaders … we’re out here,” he said. “And we’re hoping that people will see us and they will stop the chaos and the disruption.”

Almost six weeks later, Baltimore is in a new kind of chaos. Shootings have surged amid soured police-community relations, and May was the deadliest month the city has seen in decades.

Now, the challenge for the clergy is to ensure that their presence outlasts their April march. That will require them to confront tough questions about their willingness to rock the boat politically -– and their ability to reach out to people beyond their pews.

A Wake-Up Call

Many of today’s black pastors, some young activists argue, have moved away from the black church’s traditional role as a center for African-American mobilization. “Today, what we see is churches being appendages of the kind of status-quo body politic,” said Dayvon Love, 28, director of public policy at the Baltimore think tank and activist group Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. “This has happened generally post-integration, post-civil rights. You have cadres of individual back people who get positioned in white-dominated institutions, and their presence is used as a way to deflect from structural change.”

It sounds like a radical critique, but senior clergy have similar concerns. “If you are a church that’s never in ‘good’ trouble with the powers, then you’re probably in bed with the powers,” the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who holds Martin Luther King Jr.’s former pulpit at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, told NPR recently. “We’re doing precious little to actually dismantle the American prison-industrial complex, which is the new Jim Crow.”

To be sure, the protest tradition is alive and kicking in some Baltimore churches. Just last month, the Rev. Jamal Bryant, pastor of Empowerment Temple, led a group that briefly shut down a major highway into the city during the morning rush hour to denounce plans for a new juvenile jail.

And the Rev. Ron Owens, a former pastor who organized the Freddie Gray funeral, bristles at the notion that local clergy have been co-opted by the powers that be.

The same group of pastors who led the funeral and the march through the riot were instrumental in getting the U.S. Department of Justice to launch a full-blown investigation of Baltimore police, Owens said. In the week after the riot, Owens said, the group requested meetings with Justice Department officials and held separate sessions with the department’s civil rights chief, Vanita Gupta, and with Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

But Owens said it’s fair to say that such action should have come sooner, and that Baltimore clergy were previously silent on the issue of policing abuses -– even though some had experienced the problem personally. Owens himself recalled a police officer pulling him over and asking why he drove such a nice car. The Freddie Gray case has served as a wake-up call, Owens said.

“I’m glad that the alarm clock has sounded,” Owens said. “I’m the first to say that we were asleep.”

Beyond Protest

Pastors who find the critique of co-optation too radical say another charge weighs more heavily: that they have become disengaged from the communities that surround them.

The Rev. Melvin Russell is assistant pastor at Baltimore’s New Beginnings Ministries. But his day job is as a lieutenant colonel in the Baltimore Police Department, where he leads the community partnership division. “When I was coming up,” Russell said, “the churches were community churches. We’re no longer community churches. We have devolved into commuter churches.”

And gaps between congregants and neighborhoods have political consequences, said Michael Leo Owens, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta who has studied urban black churches. “Many of the people who we could argue are most affected by some of the problems that we see with something like, say, the Baltimore Police Department are folks that are not in the pews of these churches,” he said. “So there’s this tremendous disconnect.”

Russell previously served as commander of Baltimore’s Eastern police district, where he pushed hard for residents and community leaders -– including clergy –- to engage directly with people involved in drugs and crime. His message to the church, Russell said, was that they had failed.

“You can’t have a church in a community and at the same time have an open-air drug market right outside the church,” he said. “Something’s wrong with that picture as far as I’m concerned.”

The recent spate of violence has prompted actions that Russell should like: Bryant, the pastor who led last month's highway shutdown, has announced that clergy and other volunteers will patrol hot spots of violence on weekend nights this summer. Bryant also promised midnight basketball tournaments and a Father’s Day march to highlight the violence.

Meanwhile, Hickman is turning Southern Baptist Church church into a center for community redevelopment, building senior housing and other amenities for his East Baltimore neighborhood.

“Politicians and bureaucrats have ignored the church as a community stakeholder and developer and looked for others to come in and save the city,” he said. “But I believe that the church is the ideal place to start with what should happen within the community.”

For his part, Russell is working with renewed urgency these days to build trust between police and community. As part of that project, he is scaling up a program of frequent clergy ride-alongs that he ran in the Eastern district. The idea behind that initiative was that clergy could reach out directly to the people that officers confront on the street. At the same time, Russell added: “I thought it would be really difficult for knucklehead police officers to continue to be knuckleheads as long as a pastor was in the car.”

A Skeptical Flock

Shaun Young, 26, is a West Baltimore resident who attended protest rallies in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death and has been recruiting friends to assist the Department of Justice with its investigation of the city police.

On a recent Friday night, he was optimistic as he pondered the city’s future while friends reveled around him at a stoop party near Pennsylvania and North avenues, an epicenter of the recent protests.

“This moment has potential,” Young said, adding there was a greater sense of unity than before, with people from other parts of the city being welcomed into the neighborhood.

In a subsequent phone conversation, however, Young, was skeptical as to whether clergy could reach out effectively to people like those stoop-party goers, who included self-identified gang members.

Many young people are too disconnected to take an interest in spiritual affairs, he said.

“You have to give them a desire to want a better life,” Young said. “They’ve adapted to struggling.”

But instead of talking with young men who deal drugs, Young said, clergy are “in the pulpit, shaming them.” Clergy need to be visible feeding the hungry and mentoring the young, he said, and they have to actively recruit people into such positive activities.

“You have to pull me up and say, ‘Look, I'm doing this, you should be a part of it,’” Young said.

One potential opening for such conversations has been the declaration by some gang members in Baltimore of a “truce” in which they would cooperate to seek justice for Freddie Gray and keep peace in the streets. It’s not clear how many people have agreed to the declaration or whether the participants were actually previously at odds, as alliances on the ground often run across nominal gang affiliations. But there were reports that gang members marched together at protests, protected journalists during the unrest, and stopped would-be looters at a suburban mall.

On the night of the riot, a handful of self-described gang members approached the marching clergy as they turned back toward New Shiloh, saying they wanted to help. The pastors invited the young men into the sanctuary, where an extraordinary discussion ensued.

“They really talked,” said Owens, the organizer of the Gray funeral. He recalled questions like, “Where have ya’ll been?” and, in a reference to police, “Why are ya’ll letting them do this to us?”

But keeping the conversation going may prove to be a challenge. Only one gang member -– a Blood -- showed for a follow-up meeting at New Shiloh a few weeks later. He talked with a team of ministers about having gang members address schoolchildren to advocate nonviolence. As they brainstormed points for the presentation, the Blood and the ministers emphasized themes, such as respect and male role modeling, but the conversation had a forced feel.

Spiritual Power

Amid these challenges, the pastors may draw motivation from the memory of their impromptu march.

The Rev. Harold Carter Jr., New Shiloh's pastor, said that night made him think of his father, Harold Carter Sr., a civil rights leader who insisted on keeping New Shiloh inside the city limits as the church grew.

“I felt that night … that it was a kind of a fulfillment of some of his desire, my father’s desire, that we would still be instrumental in the community,” Carter said.

The march, he added, connected the clergy with the streets: “You could no longer say that we were behind stained glass windows, in a comfort zone.”

To some, the march felt like a scene out of the Civil Rights movement. But the analogy is imperfect. This was an action directed in the first instance against rioting in black communities, rather than a protest of white oppression. But to Hickman, the Civil Rights parallel still works. The lesson, he said, is simple: “Spiritual power works in any adverse situation. Whether it’s racism or violence or poverty.”

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