Black Lives Matter: Where are the Black clergy?

They were the leaders of the civil rights era in the US, but what role do Black clergy play in today’s BLM movement?

By Myriam Renaud and Lerone Jonathan Wilder

When Julian DeShazier, a 37-year-old Black pastor, marches in Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, he removes his clerical collar – a symbol of authority – and follows the instructions of organisers, many of whom are younger than him, and many of whom are women.

DeShazier and members of his Hyde Park University Church in Chicago, Illinois, decided that the youth, whom he describes as “faithful, but secular”, are “best positioned to lead this movement right now”. The role of the Church is “to be supportive of them in offering ourselves in the ways they show us they need us and to fill in the gaps as well.”

To fulfil this role, the congregation looks for ways to partner with young activists. DeShazier can name several instances where “we might reach out to them and say… ‘What do you need from us right now?’ And they say, ‘Just show up. Be in solidarity with us.’”

Jamell Spann, a young activist who demonstrated for months after the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, described similar best-practices for pastors at BLM protests. “The clergy would come out … and they would stand with us,” Spann told Leah Gunning Francis for her book, Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership and Awakening Community.

“They did not try to take over or commandeer our protest. They gave us the space and the ability we needed, as young people, to shift the narrative in the direction we felt it should go,” Spann said.

This foot-soldier approach contrasts with the front-and-centre roles of Black clergy during the Civil Rights era. Most of the Black leaders who were household names during the 1950s and 1960s – Martin Luther King, Jr, Ralph Abernathy, CT Vivian, John Lewis, James Lawson, and others – were ordained ministers. But Black clergy have been largely absent from the front lines of the mass protests that have gripped the United States over police brutality and systemic racism in recent years, underscoring the Black Church’s changing role in political movements.

The Black Church and Black life

The “Black Church” is widely understood to include churches whose congregations are predominantly African American, as well as churches affiliated with historically Black Protestant denominations.

Geneva Norman remembers Black churches as the only places where African Americans could safely gather in the 1960s and get information they could trust. “We would all come together in the churches to plan marches for voting, to pass along voting information,” the 73-year-old retired physician told Al Jazeera.

“There’s nothing that wasn’t done in the Black Church … it was the place where decisions were made,” she said.

Black clergy during the Civil Rights era were not merely leaders of individual congregations, they were also leaders of the Black community.

This was especially visible during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the mid-1950s. Jo Ann Robinson and other members of the Women’s Political Council, who planned the first boycott, enlisted the help of pastors, including Martin Luther King, Jr. Robinson believed that African Americans would not join the boycott without the support of Black clergy.