Archive for the ‘women and civil rights’ Category

Good-bye Ms. Height, See You in the Morning.

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010


Our matriarch of justice passed this morning.

Dorothy I. Height (March 24, 1912 – April 20, 2010) who fought for most of her life on behalf of women and blacks, died at the age of 98.

The last time I saw Ms. Height she was in her wheel chair, poised, eagle-eye alert, wearing her signature church lady wide brim hat, and in full control of everyone and everything.

President of the National Council of Negro Women for more than 40 years, advising presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Bill Clinton on both civil and gender rights, Ms. Height helped advance landmark legislation on school desegregation, voting rights and equality in the workplace.

She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994, and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004. Make no mistake about it, Ms. Height was among the coalition of African American leaders who pushed civil rights to the center of the American political stage in the years after World War II, often standing alone as a woman amidst a den of black male preachers, challenging sexism, decrying foolishness, negotiating between factions, calling egos on the carpet, making deals without losing her soul, and calling movements to moral order.

I remember the first time I met Ms. Height. She called me on the phone to invite me to speak at a NCNW meeting. I couldn’t believe it was Ms. Dorothy Height on the other line. It was 9pm where I was, 10pm there in her office in DC.  She was in her 80s back then. “Ms. Dorothy, what are you doing in your office this time time of night?” I asked incredulously. “Where else do you suppose I’m  supposed to be, Renita?” “Yes Mam.” I answered.

A few weeks ago after speaking at Howard University Rankin Chapel I was greeted by my mentor and friend, Dr. Marian Wright Edelman who mentioned that she was off to visit Ms. Dorothy who was in the hospital.  “How’s she doing” I asked. “Ms. Dorothy is doing what she’s always doing –even from her sick bed– in charge and giving out orders to everyone.” We laughed.  “She ordering even you around, Dr. Marian?” I asked. “Child, all any of us can say in reply to anything Ms. Height tells us is, ‘Yes Mam. That includes me!’”

Yes Mam.

You have to admire a woman who didn’t mind taking care of business.

A Story about a Story

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

Spent last night at a wonderful 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Student Sit-In Movement here in Nashville. The night’s focus was upon the role the students of American Baptist College (where I’m now Academic VP) played in the Movement: John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, James Bevel, and others. Bernice Johnson Reagon sang us through the history of that Movement, providing historical commentary and clarity to the genesis of certain freedom songs and the healing power of others. Rev. James Lawson, Rev. C.T. Vivian and Dr. Bernard Lafayette brought remarks. Many others who were in high school and college here in Nashville during the movement and took part by cutting classes and showing up for marches were there on the front row last night. Old men and old women now. But their spirits didn’t know it. They beamed. They lived to tell the story.

I’ve been around lots of preachers this week, preachers who spice their sermons with wonderful stories, stories that serve as allegories, parables, anecdotes, life illustrations to the scripture they are expounding.

I’m not much a storyteller. In fact, I probably only know two stories worth telling. One of them I share with you today.

Today I tell you a story…about a story.

An old story handed down in many different versions over many an evening fire. The story is about the great wise woman, the Ancestress. The Ancestress was dying and sent for her children. “I have acted as intercessor for you, and now when I am gone you must do this yourselves. You know the place in the forest where I call to God? Stand there in that place and do the same. You know how to light the fire, and how to say the prayer. Do all these things and God will come to see about you.”

After the Ancestress died, the first generation faced trouble and did exactly as she had instructed them, and, sure enough, God came to their rescue. But by the second generation, the people had forgotten how to light the fire exactly the way the Ancestress had taught. Nevertheless, when times got difficult they remembered the special place in the forest and said the prayer, and, sure enough, God came.

By the third generation, the people had forgotten how to light the fire, and they had forgotten exactly where the place in the forest was. But they spoke the prayer, and, sure enough God came.

By the fourth generation, everyone had forgotten how to build the fire, and no one knew any longer just where in the forest one was supposed to stand, and finally the exact words to the prayer itself could not be remembered. But one person in their midst still remembered the story about it all, and stood one day in the midst of battle and recounted the story of it all to the rest (the story of the the Ancestress, the forest, the fire, the prayer). And, sure enough, God came.

Remembering Prathia (1940-2002)

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

Prathia In 1962 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was visiting Terrell County, Georgia speaking to a congregation whose church building had recently been burned to the ground by the Klan. The name of the church was Mt. Olive Baptist Church. In the service was a young SNCC worker and college student, Prathia Hall.  She had distinguished herself as someone with great oratory talents and possessing a strong religious background, so she was on the program that night to pray.  As she prayed Prathia drew on her talents as the daughter of a Baptist preacher and began to intone her own vision of the future by peppering her prayer with the phrase, “I Have A Dream.” King was impressed; and as ministers often do King would later go on to incorporate an inspiring phrase he heard from someone into his own speeches. By late1962 the phrase, “I have a dream” had become a fixture in sermons King frequently gave as he traveled the United States.

So who was Prathia Hall?

Prathia Hall grew up in Philadelphia. Her father, Reverend Berkeley Hall, was a Baptist minister and a passionate advocate for racial justice. She left her undergraduate studies at Temple University to join the throng of college students who were heading south to be freedom fighters and to take part in the movement taking place there. Prathia joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and eventually became one of the first women field leaders in southwest Georgia.  Prathia would later go on to become a preacher, following her father’s footsteps as a Baptist minister. She helped break barriers for women’s leadership in the Baptist church by distinguishing herself as an outstanding preacher. In 1962 she was the first woman to be received into the membership of the Baptist Minister’s Conference of Philadelphia. After her father’s death Prathia accepted the call of Mount Sharon Baptist Church in Philadelphia to come and pastor the church her father once pastored.

Prathia later enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary where I met her. We were classmates, she focusing on ethics while I focused on biblical studies.  I remember the long talks we had about God, ministry, life, love, and the struggle for justice. I don’t recall her making any special effort to impress me with her SNCC credentials. Neither do I recall her saying a word about having influenced ML King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.  She was always in great demand as a speaker even while she was still a graduate student at Princeton, probably because she had been speaking and preaching for a long time before she arrived at Princeton. I got a chance to watch Prathia juggling studies, pastoring, her travels as a speaker, along with her most important job of being single mom to two rambunctious teenagers. I would often go down from Princeton to Philadelphia to preach for her at Mt. Sharon Baptist on those Sundays when she had to be out of town. Prathia Hall (Wynn) eventually graduated from Princeton with a Ph.D. in ethics, specializing in womanist ethics, theology, and African-American church history.

In 1962 Prathia Hall inspired the imagination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  by lending him a phrase(”I Have A Dream”) that would become a staple of his preaching and the signature of his life work. It seems only fitting decades later that Rev. Dr. Prathia Hall would go on to become an associate professor at Boston University School of Theology, holding the Martin Luther King Jr. Chair in Social Ethics. Prathia Hall died on August 12, 2002, following a long illness.

I am remembering Prathia Hall this week.

Dear Rick: Form Letters Undermine Reconciliation

Saturday, January 17th, 2009

Some of the comments left here on the blog in response to Rick Warren’s form letter to African American ministers have left me shaking my head. (I’ve just been too busy with other matters to come back in and comment on the comments.)

Some folks want to know what’s the big deal. Others think we oughta cut Warren some slack. Some think that instead of putting what they feel is Warren’s naive, but well-intentioned, gesture “on blast” (as the youngun’s would say), I and other black ministers should reach out to fifty-four year old Warren and use this as an opportunity to enlighten him and help him understand race and racism in America. A couple of you seem to think the scripture “Judge not, lest you be judged” means Christians (and non-Christians) should refrain from commenting on what we see going on in the world. Thank God, we don’t all think alike.

With pride I post here on the blog official responses from colleagues around the country to Rick Warren’s form letter.  I post them here as proof that the Black church in America is not as gullible, stupid, and irrelevant as many in blogosphere suppose. I post them also to show that thinking women and men of faith must not mistake patronage for reconciliation, nor tokenism for justice. I post my colleagues responses (at least two of them), finally, as my way of insisting that neither Rick Warren nor the media gets to decide who our leaders are in the Black church. We are called by God “at such a time as this” to be ministers, community activists, prophets, and public thinkers even if we’re never invited by Larry King Live, MSNBC,  The New York Times or the Saddlebrook Churches of the country to be on panels or offer our opinion on today’s current events. As African-American ministers we are many, and we are not a monolith.

Earlier today I posted Iva Carruther’s response as General Secretary of the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference, Inc., an organization representing a cross section of some of the most dynamic and progressive African American faith leaders and their congregations in the United States.

Tonight I post a letter to Warren sent by Frank Thomas, Senior Pastor of Mississippi Blvd Christian Church of Memphis, TN and Co-Executive Editor of The African American Pulpit (the journal Warren used to find and identify African American ministers for his project).


Dear Pastor Warren:

First, let me thank you for subscribing to the African American Pulpit. We appreciate your interest and support. Without our subscribers, The African American Pulpit would be defunct.  Thank you for the wonderful support you provide.

I must make you aware that I was initially disappointed and later angry to find that many clergy were getting the same “form” letter from you as I received. While you have the right to email letters to anyone that you deem necessary, the fact that we all got the same letter with only the first paragraph changed made your personal request impersonal. I have several friends that cross racial boundaries and based upon our relationship, we ask each for advice on sermons and even situations in our churches. Often more than the advice, it is the fact that someone will listen and talk through the concerns – in other words relationship and listening is more important than the advice.  I know that you are a very busy pastor, with many huge responsibilities, and I did not expect that there would be dialogue or relationship between you and I. I am not looking for that, and I am sure that you have many quality relationships as well, but I did want more than my opinion to be a response to a form letter that was sent to many clergy. It said to me that you were not serious, and I wondered about the real motive.

I think questions such as you ask about preaching the King service are best asked in relationship and intimacy with an African American pastor. Form letters are not the best forum, and in true relationship such questions get responded to easily and quickly.  I appreciate your ministry of reconciliation and the fact that you are always trying to build bridges to African American pastors. I would suggest that it might be better that such bridges are built one pastor at a time in one on one relationships rather than form letters. Form letters undermine reconciliation.

I have found in my community that my relationship with a white, Presbyterian pastor has meant more and effected more change than all of the mass clergy meetings that I have done. It starts one on one with one pastor confiding in and relating to another. I believe that we can change the world one pastor at a time. Form letters do not change the world – they give the illusion of intimacy, when in fact they are de-personal.

I will pray that you preach well at the King service. May it be a blessing to a world that is starving for justice, truth, and peace.

Frank Thomas
Senior Pastor Mississippi Blvd. Christian Church, Memphis
Co-Executive Editor of The African American Pulpit


Finally, just in case there are those of you out there who still think we’re being unfair to Warren. Here is the “form letter” response everyone, regardless what they write, gets from Warren’s office:

Thank you  _____ - I am humbled by your words. This is really great and thank you for sending to me! This is so helpful as I am getting ready to speak on Monday. I look forward to working with you in the future! We’re praying for you -