MLK Day: What is the role of the Black church in today's social justice movements

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Many scholars argue the Black church played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement.

"Most of the social justice movements were led by African American preachers, Dr. King being one of the most famous," said Bishop Derrick Fitzpatrick, pastor of Stone Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood.

Fitzpatrick said Dr. Martin Luther King Junior delivered several sermons at the church, including in 1966 when he came to Chicago to lead a campaign to end housing discrimination.

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Fitzpatrick believes the Black church is the foundation of today's social justice fight.

"You will never see a social justice movement going forward, whether it's Black Lives Matter or anything else, that does not have a remnant or some type of fragrance of the Black Church," he said.

But some young organizers describe a growing divide between activists and the Black church.

Allena Bradley, a Black Lives Matter Chicago organizer, said that divide came to light during the demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. She is critical of some faith leaders who she accuses of being tied to the systems many activists want to reform or disband.

"I have to be very selective with how particularly, like, our organization relates to these churches and what concessions we make for their comfort and for what feels palatable," she said.

Tonya Watkins, executive director of Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL), said although King was an ordained minister, some Black clergy were not supportive of his efforts.

"Some of the same fears and trepidations that folks are feeling today around the movement. That has existed for a very long time," she explained.

Both pastors and activists agree that the church still has enormous power to effect change and that all sides must work together to have the most impact.

"I want to see the Black church retain young membership," Bradley said. "I want to have a home there."

Watkins said the Black church should be a place where Black people can freely talk about the issues impacting their everyday life.

"We believe that life can be different, particularly for Black folks, and we want the church to stand with us and fight for that reality," she said.

Pastor Anthony Williams leads MLK International Ministry United Church Of Christ, which is in the process of finding a new location in Chicago. Williams said young people want realism.

"We named our church after Martin Luther King so that we can always be reminded that the role of the church is not to be a conformist institution, but a transformative institution," he said.
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