Gayraud Wilmore on the Emergence of Black Theology, 1966-1968

This chapter reading is really just making some notes on a scene-setting section introduction in Gayraud S. Wilmore and Jame H. Cone (eds.), Black Theology: A Documentary History, 1966-1979. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, pp. 15-21

Wilmore’s introduction to the first six documents has three interests for us. The first interest is on what was going on in the society to commit Christian churches to the kinds of statements he introduces in the text. The second interest is how he and his subject — he is a part of his subject, he was there, and the section is bibliographical — are framed by him. The third thing that is interests me particularly, is what similarities I see in what he describes with descriptions found other liberation theology recollections.

Let us start as Wilmore starts, with a scene.

“If you wanna burn down some White folks’ church, that’s hip,” they said to the outside gang leader, “but this is our church, and you ain’t messing with it. Understand?”

The scene takes place during the Watts rebellion in Los Angeles. A gang from another area makes to burn down the Black Presbyterian Church. The Black Church “is inseparable from the ghetto.” That was 1965.

Another scene, almost a reverse but with the sample principle, the same essence. The same community, Watts, where Black preachers form armed guards, not to protect themselves or their churches from Black rioters but “to repulse a White motorcycle gang trying to invade their neighborhood in retaliation”. Retaliation for neighborhoods burning across the nation, 128 cities erupted between 1963 and ’68, which was retaliation itself with regards the brutalization of Black People, the neglect of Black communities, the dehumanization of Black ghettos, and the frustration of Black freedom. It was not the first time the Black church was armed and on the streets. But it was the first time for most of those out there now. It was the first time Watts was burning. And Harlem. And Rochester. And Chicago in July ’66. And Newark. Detroit. Just to name some of the north. 128 cities across the country. The last time that happened it was the American Civil War. Forged in those flames was Black Power. And then, too, Black Theology.

July, 1966, Harlem. Black clergy are affirming the statement, Black Power. It was the statement Stokely Carmichael (sic, henceforth, Kwame Ture) had begun as a chant during the March Against Fear, where he led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) alongside King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), in Mississippi, in June.[footnote] The Harlem clergy had all supported King (“[a]lmost to a man”, says Wilmore) and it wasn’t a matter of condoning the violence of some of the rioters. But in the cities, where the flames grew higher in 1964 in Harlem and Rochester, and higher in Watts in ’65, and higher in ’66 in Chicago, Black churchmen and women were finding themselves in the midst of the revolt, and it looked different from the freedom marches and sit-ins of the southern campaigns. Besides, they sympathised with the rioters who were their own youth. And the sympathy was because of how the view looked differently from the ghettos of America’s northern inner cities:

The celebration and congratulation which accompanied the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights and the 1965 Voting Rights Acts seemed gratuitous to ghetto-dwellers who did not have the price of dinner at a desegregated restaurant, whose children continued in abandoned, all-Black innercity schools twelves years after the Brown decision, and who were afraid to register and vote for fear of having name and address fall into the hands of creditors, police investigators, or the Internal Revenue Service.

And so while pastors were finding themselves safe-housing young militants, smuggling people and sometimes weapons passed police searches, and taking up armed patrols themselves as community leaders, they were rethinking on the ground what their faith meant. It was so that Dr. Benjamin F. Payton gathered some and wrote to others, signatories of a “Black Power Statement” that would be published as a full-page advertisement in the New York Times on July 31 and form the nucleus of a new organisation, the National Committee of Negro Churchmen (NCNC).

Black Power statement


[footnote] Actually, James Meredith, an unaffiliated activist, had begun the solo 220-mile march from Memphis in Tennessee to Jackson in Mississippi, in early June. He was shot by a sniper on the second day in, hospitalised, and that’s when the SCLC and SNCC leaders, King and Ture, took to complete Meredith’s march on his behalf. It grew and grew, with locals and those travelling from around the country, joining in an action that came to 15,000 entering. This march became emblematic — through the televised footage of King and Ture talking while walking — of the different approaches to the Black Freedom Struggle. L. Eljeer Hawkins writes on it for HamptonThink.Org.

[draft. under construction]




Published by AlJoHoBro

Alexander Jordan Holmes-Brown

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