The Great Divide – Why The Church Isn’t Connecting With The #BlackLivesMatter Movement

By Allana Haynes, Guest Contributor

As the sun set in the Florida sky, fists jabbed upward into the evening light. Signs bearing the image of a teenage boy waved proudly among a sea of supporters. A choir led a song of peace. Reverend Al Sharpton fired up the crowd as he led the rallying cry, “No Justice, No Peace.”  

With her voice trembling, the mother of the boy depicted on the signs recited scripture before the crowd. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding,” she said. “I stand before you today, not knowing how I am walking right now because my heart hurts for my son.”

Over 30,000 people rallied in the park in Sanford, Florida, in a public outcry against the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Hands raised and eyes closed, they chanted a prayer for justice: “I am Trayvon. I am Trayvon. I am Trayvon.” 

A year and a half later, on July 13, 2013, after a 15-day trial and 16 hours of deliberations, a six-member, all-woman jury found the shooter, George Zimmerman, not guilty for Martin’s death.  The response could be felt nationwide.

“Everything went quiet, everything and everyone,” said Alicia Garza, Special Projects Director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Garza was in a bar with her husband and friends in Oakland, California, when the decision was announced. “The one thing I remembered from that evening, other than crying myself to sleep that night, was the way in which as a black person, I felt incredibly vulnerable, incredibly exposed, and incredibly enraged. It was a verdict that said black people are not safe in America.”

Hands raised and eyes closed, the crowd chanted a prayer for justice: 
“I am Trayvon. I am Trayvon. I am Trayvon.”

Garza responded by writing a message on social media to her friends in the black community: “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.” Hundreds of miles away, Garza’s friend, Patrisse Cullors, 33, read that Facebook post while in a hotel room and responded with a message of her own. It was a simple hashtag: #BlackLivesMatter.

The next day the women brainstormed about how they could publicly speak out for the rights of the black community. They invited Opal Tometi, 33, Executive Director of The Black Alliance for Just Immigration, to join them. The three woman set up social media accounts encouraging users to share their stories of why they believe #BlackLivesMatter. A few days later, others joined a march down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills protesting against the injustice of the case of Trayvon Martin. It was the first protest to feature #BlackLivesMatter. Little did they know that their message would go on to become one of the most widely used social justice hashtags of all time.

Beyond a #Hashtag

On August 9, 2014, their efforts grew beyond a hashtag when, hundreds of miles away in Ferguson, Missouri, an unarmed 18-year-old black man, Michael Brown, was shot by a white police officer. The St. Louis suburb was already on edge after going from majority white to majority black in four decades. Protests and violence broke out around the city in the days following the shooting. Tear gas and smoke bombs permeated the air, rioters and looters roamed the streets, and heavily-armed police officers descended on the town. At least two people were shot and 31 were arrested. The #BlackLivesMatter founders and over 400 people gathered in Ferguson to participate in the first #BlackLivesMatter Freedom Ride, at the place where Brown died.

The momentum for #BlackLivesMatter continued to build in the months that followed and broke out publicly on April 12, 2015, when the Baltimore Police Department arrested a 25-year-old black man, Freddie Gray. When word got out that during his arrest Gray suffered a serve spinal cord injury and eventually died seven days later, his death event sparked nationwide demonstrations and accusations of police brutality. On the day of Gray’s funeral, the city of Baltimore erupted with protests and acts of violence. Rioters cruised the streets, setting police cars ablaze, while looters broke into stores and stole money and property. Altercations with the police left over twenty officers injured. Black Lives Matters activists, concerned about the escalating unrest, stepped in to defend the civil rights of the black community.

Twenty-six year old Shamecca Harris watched the riots in Baltimore unfold and felt helpless. She began to consider following in the footsteps of her grandfather, Robert Harris, a black nationalist activist and author of “Carlos Cooks and Black Nationalism from Garvey to Malcolm.” Harris quit her job and used freelance writing as a means to support her activism. In her view, the newly installed Trump administration provides a crucial moment for the concerns of the black community to become part of the national conversation.

“History is all kind of encapsulated in this movement, but it is on steroids because of social media,” she said. “There are so many avenues and so many ways for people to get involved. All you have to do is use a hashtag.”

It’s the power of that simple hashtag, tweeted by one woman in a Los Angeles hotel room, that has resonated most with Harris and millions of others. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” is what compelled her to become part of the movement.

“I think the affirmation itself is just so powerful,” said Harris. “Hearing it and being able to use it and feeling powerful saying it is not just why it resonates with me, but why it resonates with so many people. It makes you proud to be who you are.”

Then vs. Now

Two salient facts mark Black Lives Matter as a departure from past social justice movements: it is not attached to any particular religious institution or organized religion, and it adheres to a tactic of anonymity, with no defined leadership. Unlike the civil rights movements of the past, which were spearheaded by ministers and church members in the historically black church, when it comes to Black Lives Matter, it seems the church has been relegated to the back seat.

In contrast, the civil rights movement of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s was forged from countless moments and events that started in the black church. One event that ignited the nationwide, civil rights movement took place on December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks, a seamstress at a department store in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to give up her seat on on a bus on her commute home. Her refusal to move to the back of the bus resulted in her arrest and public outrage. School teacher Jo Ann Robinson, a member of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and President of the Women’s Political Council, responded by distributing thousands of flyers to the black community urging them to boycott the city bus system on the day of Parks’ trial. That morning, a group of leaders from the black community gathered at the Mount Zion Church and formed the Montgomery Improvement Association. They elected a newcomer, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, to lead the boycott. The boycott lasted 381 days and was regarded as the first large-scale demonstration against segregation in the United States. At its head, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. emerged as the most prominent figure in the burgeoning civil rights movement. This event sparked what would become one of the most prominent social justice efforts in the nation’s history.

“Black Power advocates were called the children of Malcolm X...You could say that Black Lives Matter is a resurrection of Black Power.
-Dr. James Cone

Scholar and theologian Dr. James Cone, author of “Black Theology and Black Power,” notes that, although there are similarities to the civil rights movement of the past, today's Black Lives Matter might be more akin to the Black Power movement of the 1960s. Most notable is that both were established by young people who no longer wanted to follow the tactics of their elders. In 1966, Stokely Carmichael coined the term “black power” and began to identify with the more radical tactics of Malcolm X. “Black Power advocates were called the children of Malcolm X,” Cone said. “They were mostly very young, very much like what Black Lives Matter is today.”

In contrast to the nonviolent civil rights movement, which was started primarily by black women and led primarily by the historically black church, those who became involved with Black Power and various subsequent organizations, including the Black Panthers, developed a powerful, male-identified rhetoric and insisted on the value and legitimacy of black self-affirmation. “You could say that Black Lives Matter is a resurrection of Black Power,” said Cone.

The Role Of Sexuality

One notable difference of the black church’s involvement in the civil rights movement and its absence in The Black Lives Matter movement may be in response to how each one regards sexuality – specifically, homosexuality. Until recently, the black church considered gayness to be unacceptable. Today, Black Lives Matters’ acceptance of LGBTQ members is one of the keys to its popularity in much of young black America. “I am black and my life matters,” said Jonathan Gartrelle, 27, manager of a Japanese bar and restaurant in Harlem. “I want to join in the chanting of that. I want to add my piece to that, not because my piece is significantly important, but because everyone adding their piece is important.”

Gartrelle says that Black Lives Matter helps to amplify his voice when he expresses how he experiences the world as a black man and it’s the fact that it is not led by a religious institution that he says appeals to young people who are seeking spirituality outside of the church. “Less people are adhering to the strict doctrine of the church, especially in the black community,” he said. “You definitely realize the church enforces homophobia,” he said. “You realize from a young age that you are not welcome and that you cannot always be your most authentic self, which is something terrible that [queer] black people experience twice over.”

It is no accident that Black Lives Matter is a more accepting environment for activists than the traditional black church. Two of the three founders of Black Lives Matter, Garza and Cullers, identify as queer, and another prominent figure, DeRay McKesson, who is gay, has stressed advocacy for the LGBTQ community as a primary mission for the movement.

McKesson, 31, became involved in Black Lives Matter in the wake of the death of Michael Brown, when he quit his job as a school administrator in Minnesota and traveled to Ferguson to support the protests there. Afterward, he returned to Baltimore and took his activism to social media, cultivating a Twitter following of over 700,000. In August 2015, he helped launch Campaign Zero, a national Black Lives Matter police reform campaign with the goal of ending police violence.

In an opinion article in The Guardian he noted how the hashtag #BlackLivesMater connected activists to one another in the midst of the protests.

“[There] was no organizing committee, no charismatic leader, no church group or school club that led us in the streets,” he wrote. “It is powerful to remember that the movement began as everyday people came out of their homes and refused to be silenced by the police.”

Where Does The Church Fit In?

While some people find freedom in the disconnect between the Black church and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, others believe that the church was born out of the black community’s pursuit of freedom and should be a part of Black Lives Matter.

“The church should be involved because its message is one that God made us all one and that God has come in Jesus Christ to liberate us all from slavery,” said Dr. Cone. “Black Lives Matter is about the liberation of black people and that is why they came into existence, to be a force of liberation.”

Reverend Al Sharpton agrees. “My religion guides my perspective,” he said. “I fight because I believe that I will be judged by how I respond in the time in which I live. When Trayvon Martin’s mother calls me, it is my religious calling that compels me to go.”

Sharpton has been involved in the civil rights movement for five decades and helped to found the National Action Network (NAN), one of the leading civil rights organizations to have promoted nonviolence. With chapters throughout the United States, NAN has offices, a traditional structure, a board of directors, and a publicly available agenda of customary advocacy activities. By contrast, Black Lives Matter has no offices, no structure, no board of directors and no publicly announced agenda – a model that leaves little room for a traditional activist like Sharpton. He fears the lack of structured leadership in the movement may also become its most notable downfall.  “It opens you up so anybody can attack you and nobody has the authority to defend what you are doing. If you do not define leadership, somebody will come in and define it for you.” he said.

“Without the church, there is nothing. Black lives do matter.
Life matters. Knowing God matters.”
-Dr. Mable Elliott

Abyssinian Baptist Church, a historically black church in Harlem, was one of the most prominent churches in the civil rights movement. Established in 1808, it was founded by a group of African Americans who chose the ancient name of Ethiopia for their new house of worship and refused to accept the segregated seating at the First Baptist Church of New York City. In 1937, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. succeeded his father as pastor. Under his leadership, the church became one of the largest and most influential black churches in America. Powell had influence not only in the church, but also as a civil rights activist and politician. In 1945, he became the first African American from New York to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Under Powell, Abyssinian offered weekday activities for members and the Harlem community and provided consistent spiritual nourishment for those seeking Jesus. But the congregation also engaged in boycotts and picketing for the elimination of racial discrimination and the establishment of better healthcare and broader employment opportunities for African Americans.

“Back in the day, even though there was a lot of 'You’re a nigger - you can’t do this or that,' a lot of families that were in the church knew better than that,” said Dr. Mable Elliott, 63, now pastor of a tiny storefront Harlem church called God’s Touch Healing Ministry. “Those were the fighters. Those were the ones that were sprayed with the water. Those were the ones who walked for miles. Those were the ones that did not give up because they knew God.”

To Elliott, it was the leadership of the church that made the civil rights movement successful. “Back then, it was solid,” she said. “Everyone in the household went to church. Kids did not have a right when it came to that. It made them know and love themselves even more because they knew who they were. You can fight better when you know who you are.”

A Look Ahead

When it comes to Black Lives Matter, Elliott believes the historically black church should be involved. “Without the church, there is nothing,” she said. “Black lives do matter. Life matters. Knowing God matters.”

Today, Abyssinian holds to the practices of the past while pushing toward justice in the future. “Civil rights are incorporated into everything we do,” said Reverent Rashad Moore. “I have taught classes on Black Lives Matter and what it means for a church to embrace the movement. I have also taught classes on black nationalist thought and understanding that there is no separation between our faith and the teaching of Malcolm X or Stokely Carmichael.”

Although the black church invests in both the black community and the community at large, he said, there are parts of Black Lives Matter that the church still has not yet come to understand. “Black Lives Matter has this commitment to wholeness for all people – black people, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, everyone,” he said. “I think one of the hesitancies of black churches to support the movement is that black churches have still not found out what to do with sexuality, period.”

Coming from a younger generation, he can identify with both the movement and the church. “I live in two different worlds,” he said. “I live in the world that is the church, and I also live in a world where I have many friends who are a part of the movement who are queer.”

For the church to be a part of the movement, Moore believes the church needs to embrace all of what the movement represents. “I know some pastors who have said that the black church needs to get at the forefront of this movement, but I am hesitant to say that,” Moore said. “I think there is a movement that is going on in the wilderness, and it has a voice, and if you want to join it, the church needs to leave where the church is and go into the wilderness to find that.”

In his view the church is already involved in the movement in subtle, unseen ways. “We may not be protesting,” he said, “but a minister may be rushing to the hospital to visit a teenager who is on the verge of suicide. That is a part of the movement. It may not be at the forefront, but in our everyday ways of sustaining life and creating spaces of joy, we are indeed a part of that movement.”  

Because of the long-standing, widespread influence of the historically black church, Rev. Sharpton believes it ought to remain part of the fight for liberation for the black community. “The church should be involved in civil rights, Black Lives Matter, black liberation, anything,” he said.

But if the church stay absent from today’s movement, Sharpton warns that the church may be so focused on heaven that it will become “no earthly good.”

Photo of Black Lives Matter protest courtesy of Fibonacci Blue and used under Creative Commons license