Bearing Witness: Protest | Praise
"You cannot prepare people for Heaven without trying to make their life here more heavenly."
Dr. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Ebony Magazine, 1980
Throughout their sojourn on the continent, Black religious leaders have not only ministered to the spiritual needs of their people, but have also birthed and led social movements to redeem the soul of the nation from the injustices of slavery and its afterlives. As they led as prophets in seasons of social protest, bearing witness to wrongs, and lighting the pathway to freedom, these leaders also led as priests, offering comfort to the suffering and strength to the masses through acts of worship and the care and cure of souls.
Other moral leaders with more humanistic orientations have also served on the vanguard of freedom. Rather than being inspired by religion, these individuals have led with the convictions of their moral and political beliefs, though also embodying both priestly and prophetic functions in their contributions to leadership in the struggle for Black liberation.
Eldridge Cleaver (1935–1998) rose to prominence as the Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party (BPP). In 1968, two years after joining the party, he faced re-imprisonment and fled the country. He spent years abroad searching out communism and was expelled from the BPP, eventually returning to the United States. In 1988, Cleaver told Ebony he experienced a religious conversion during his exile: “I changed from really being a communist or atheist, basically someone who does not believe in God, to someone who does.” After a time with a Pentecostal congregation, Cleaver became a Mormon in 1982, and later ran for the U.S. Senate as a conservative Republican.
In a 1964 Ebony interview, gospel superstar Mahalia Jackson (1911–1972) described her music as “the songs in which I could talk to God and that my people could understand.” These photographs capture two dramatic moments when Jackson talked to God and audiences listened. With her electrifying performance of “I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned” before a crowd of 250,000 at the March on Washington, she invoked the moral struggle for civil rights and exposed what Ebony senior editor Lerone Bennett Jr. described as “a nerve 400 years old and throbbing with hurt and indignation.” Five years later, living alone after the dissolution of her second marriage, Jackson bared her soul to Ebony readers and offered advice to older women struggling to find love.
As a socialist, pacifist, and labor crusader, A. Philip Randolph (1889–1979) practiced and preached a moral commitment to equality and nonviolence. He was compared to religious leaders—in a 1969 article, Ebony associate editor Phyl Garland referred to the 80-year-old activist as “a modern-day Moses and an American Gandhi,” and “the ‘St. Philip of the Pullman Porters.’” Yet early in his career, Randolph was criticized for expressing anti-religious views. Publicly, he denied being an atheist. He credited his father, a Methodist minister, with inspiring his passion for racial justice. He also worked with religious leaders to organize major civil rights initiatives, including the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, and the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
In 1963, Jet dubbed Bayard Rustin the “Controversial Hero of the March on Washington.” Guided by his Quaker beliefs, Rustin (1914–1998) opposed inequality and violence in all forms. His moral commitment to peace, including refusing the military draft during World War II, landed him in jail and drew political attacks. As a gay man, Rustin also faced persecution and attempts to discredit his leadership in the Civil Rights Movement. Yet he refused to fade into the margins. “The only real security,” he wrote in Ebony in 1973, “is a sense of confidence and personal worth, and this can come only from facing up to all the challenges that exist in the world, not by hiding from them.”
As a youth in Birmingham, Alabama, Angela Davis (b. 1944) attended interracial discussion groups at her church amid the terror of white supremacist bombings. Years later, as a scholar and community activist engaged in the struggle for Black liberation, she was targeted for her political beliefs and membership in the Communist Party. Charged with murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy, she spent 14 months in jail awaiting trial. “I never saw myself as a political leader,” Davis told Jet in 1974, two years after her acquittal. “I feel an eternal indebtedness to people for having fought for my freedom . . . that can only be dealt with by committing my life to the struggle for the freedom of political prisoners.”
Martin King (1929–1968) and Coretta Scott (1927–2006) met in Boston while she was studying at the New England Conservatory of Music and he was pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy. They married in 1953 and settled in Montgomery, Alabama, where Martin became pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Both dedicated their lives to the civil rights cause, a commitment that was grounded in their Christian faith. After her death in 2006, Jet quoted Coretta: “Neither Martin nor I believed in destiny . . . [but] we both felt that God guided our lives in the way that He wanted us to serve, so that we might be the instruments of His creative will.”
“Black preachers are as firmly entrenched in American politics as ‘Amazing Grace’ is in their choirs’ hymn books,” Ebony assistant editor Ronald Harris declared in 1980. Rev. Al Sharpton (b. 1954) and Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (1908–1972) defined the role of minister-politician for their respective generations. Powell, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, led anti-discrimination protests and served 26 years in Congress as New York’s first Black U.S. representative. Sharpton, known as the “Wonder Boy Preacher,” was mentored by Powell and Rev. Jesse Jackson. In 1991, he founded the National Action Network as a base for his political activism, focusing on issues of police brutality, racial profiling, and voting rights.
On February 4, 1965, Malcolm X (1925–1965) spoke at Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Alabama, which served as headquarters for the voting rights campaign organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC members had invited him over the objections of SCLC leaders, who worried that his militant stance would undermine the nonviolent message preached by Martin Luther King Jr. But as Coretta Scott King later explained to Jet, Malcolm X came to help the cause: “He said he wanted to present an alternative; that it might be easier for whites to accept Martin’s proposals after hearing him.”
In 1969, four years after the assassination of her husband, Malcolm X, Betty Shabazz (1934–1997) wrote about her experiences as a wife and mother for Ebony. In keeping with the principles her late husband espoused, she continued to raise their six young daughters in the orthodox (Sunni) Muslim faith, teaching them “to face reality, to accept themselves . . . [and] to realize that it was their spiritual and moral duty to help oppressed people.” In 1995, Shabazz wrote another piece for Ebony. Having built her own career as an educator and social justice advocate, she said: “I embrace the woman I am today, who is truly a ‘broader’ person with an expanded, global consciousness.”
Boxer Muhammad Ali (1942–2016), born Cassius Clay Jr., and basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (b. 1947), born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr., encountered the Islamic faith as teenagers. Ali read a Nation of Islam newspaper; Abdul-Jabbar, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. These texts were an awakening for both men, who were raised Baptist and Catholic, respectively. The athletes converted in their 20s—Ali to the Nation of Islam, and Abdul-Jabbar to Sunni Islam. The traditions of Islam offered a welcome alternative to Christianity, which Ali and Abdul-Jabbar believed to be deeply tied to the enslavement of Black people. Adopting new names was an important part of their conversion experiences and with breaking from a history of African enslavement. Muhammad Ali means “worthy of praise and most high;” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, “noble one, servant of the Almighty.”