- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 14, 2007

NEW YORK — The last of the black preachers who came to prominence with Martin Luther King are nearing retirement, giving way to a generation who learned about the civil rights movement instead of living through it.

It’s a transition that carries both challenges and opportunities for pastors and churches committed to continuing the political work of the previous generation.

“If you have an institution that is constituted around a dynamic, charismatic personality, can it continue to exist when that person steps down?” asks Melissa Harris-Lacewell, associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University.

For the Rev. Thomas Johnson Jr., preaching a social-justice gospel is still viable and necessary — even without King, who became a national icon and whose birthday became a national holiday.

“God is always raising up a voice or voices to speak to the needs of the present day,” said Mr. Johnson, installed less than a year ago at Harlem’s Canaan Baptist Church of Christ. What’s important, he said, is to follow the example that King and others set.

Among Mr. Johnson’s prized possessions are photographs that show his predecessor at Canaan, the Rev. Wyatt T. Walker, being held with King in the jail cell in Birmingham, Ala., where King wrote his “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”

Along with Mr. Walker, a number of well-known pastors — many with ties to King — have either retired recently or announced plans to do so.

The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, stepped down from the pulpit at the Greater New Light Baptist Church in Cincinnati last year. The Rev. James A. Forbes Jr., the first black senior minister at New York’s Riverside Church, will retire in June.

The Rev. William H. Gray III, the third generation of his family to lead Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia, will step down next month. And the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. has announced he will step down from Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago in 2008.

The new generation definitely has its work cut out in terms of reaching people who may be paying more attention to today’s prosperity gospel, which focuses more on personal health and well-being.

“I think there’s an enormous social-justice gospel education agenda that faces this generation that succeeds some of the towering figures in the black pulpit,” said Robert Franklin, professor of social ethics at Emory University.

“I think one of the mistakes that we make is to institutionalize a person rather than institutionalize a movement,” says Mr. Gray. “Guys like me moving on, passing the torch to a new generation of young folk is good. That’s positive.”

“In each generation, people come and they affirm their commitment,” Mr. Shuttlesworth said.

A new generation of leadership could also provide an opportunity to cease viewing the civil rights movement as something that ended decades ago, said Miss Harris-Lacewell.

“I think it’s potentially really healthy for us to move away from imagining that the social gospel theologically or the civil rights movement politically started with or ended with Martin Luther King,” she said. “It might actually be good to move into a new generation that has to make claims and arguments for civil rights that are not rooted in a movement that’s 40 years old.”

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