Social media lit up as protesters hit the streets on Saturday night and Sunday morning, angry about a black barber and father of a 5-year-old who was fatally shot by police. (Video from CBS News)
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marching arm-in-arm with other civil rights activists. Cesar Chavez hoisting a picket sign in a farm workers’ strike. Gloria Steinem rallying other feminists for equal rights.
During the 1960s and into the 1970s, amid the turbulence of protests for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, every movement seemed to have a famous face — someone at a podium or at the front of a march who possessed a charismatic style, soaring oratory, and an inspiring message.
Not so today.
The new wave of political activism, marked by protests in the nation’s capital and cities across America, looks more anonymous. Since the presidential election of Donald Trump, there have been marches for women, science, the Dreamers — immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children — and most recently, gun control, a response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. In all those events, multitudes of voices — some more high-profile than others — have represented each cause.
Have America’s protests changed so they rely more on the masses and less on one captivating leader?
The answer, some experts say, is yes, for two reasons: Progressive politics have moved in that direction — think Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street — and social media has radically transformed activism. Decades ago, it could take weeks of planning, newspaper ads, phone trees and a rousing speaker to organize a successful protest. Now a Facebook post or a series of tweets can fill the streets, jam a state capitol or block an expressway.
“With the rise of social media, it’s definitely a lot easier for people to mobilize more quickly and you don’t necessarily need to have one charismatic leader like Dr. King, who had almost some kind of magical quality,” says Rachel Einwohner, a Purdue University sociology professor. “But you still do need some powerful message that really resonates with a lot of people.”
Social media also makes it harder for a leader to emerge because it frequently traffics in bruising personal attacks, says Dana R. Fisher, a University of Maryland sociologist who is writing a book “American Resistance” about large-scale protests.
“I wonder to the degree to which people can lead in the same way in this era of Twitter and Facebook,” she says. “Everybody’s a critic. … With people trolling and then clashing on social media, it may be harder to create a following in the same way that we saw with these leaders in the past.”
Technology alone hasn’t created the shift. Some progressives believe there’s “something inherently wrong or problematic” about having one dynamic person seize the spotlight, says Fabio Rojas, an Indiana University sociology professor. “Modern progressive social movements see themselves as a very democratic form of politics. When they make decisions, they want a lot of consensus. They want a lot of deliberation.”
Black Lives Matter, which has been in the forefront of protests against police violence and fatal shootings of black men, is among the many movements that have adopted this approach.
“The model of the charismatic leader was not something that we were interested in and in fact, many of us were trained to believe that the people themselves are going to set themselves free, not one person,” says Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of the group. It’s “dangerous,” she says, to have one leader because that person becomes “the target of praise or the target of demise.”
Black Lives Matters, she says, was inspired by ’60s activist groups, including the Black Panther Party, which combined militancy and social programs (free breakfast for children), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a civil rights organization involved in sit-ins and voter registration that became more radical in its later years.
Cullors says her group, formed in 2013 in response to the acquittal of a neighborhood watch volunteer in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen, is sometimes misunderstood.
“People assume because we hit the streets and protested that we don’t believe in anything else … and that because we don’t have a single leader, we’re aimless.” Instead, she says, Black Lives Matter, which has 40 chapters in the U.S., Canada and England, has a clear strategy, including participating in electoral politics. Some members are running for office and in 2016, the group, with other organizations, signed on to a policy plan that called for universal health care and an end to the death penalty.
Another leaderless movement that shook up the establishment, Occupy Wall Street, was influenced, in part, by the Arab Spring, the uprisings in several Middle East countries that brought hundreds of thousands in the streets, leading to the toppling of some regimes.
The sometimes raucous protests in 2011 transformed a park in the heart of New York’s financial district into an encampment with sleeping bags, tents, a makeshift kitchen and a rallying cry — “We are the 99 Percent” — condemning the concentration of wealth in the U.S.
Micah White, the group’s co-founder, says even though it took only a few thousand dollars to launch the movement, half of America had heard of it a month later. “That’s priceless,” he says. “You can’t even get a Super Bowl ad that would reach that many people.”
Many credit Occupy with putting economic inequality on the national radar, but White says the group’s real goal — to end the influence of money on democracy — was “a constructive failure. … The main lesson is that street protests do not translate into political change because elected representatives are not required to listen to the majority.”
During the two months of the Occupy protests, White says, the encampments “devolved into paralysis when asked to come up with a list of demands.” But he also notes there still was a worldwide ripple effect.
“The way social movements are created now is that you release an idea that other people take up as their own,” White says. “That’s precisely why Occupy was spread to 82 countries. We couldn’t have organized Occupy Wall Street in 82 countries. … The strength of leaderless movements is in their capacity to spread extremely quickly. Their weakness is in their inability to make complex decisions.”
Occupy wasn’t the first protest to employ disruptive tactics.
In the late 1980s, members of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to unleash Power) demonstrated on Wall Street and shut down the Food and Drug Administration offices for a day, demanding increased access to experimental AIDS drugs. Code Pink, a women-initiated activist organization, has been a vocal anti-war presence, at times interrupting congressional hearings.
Since then, other social causes have surfaced, notably the recent #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and violence.
And some long-standing crusades, such as the push for tighter gun laws, have a new face — the teens from Parkland, Florida, who organized a massive rally in Washington, D.C., in April.
Trump’s election also spawned Indivisible, a grass-roots organization with some 6,000 local groups, some of whom have held vigils, marches and die-ins concentrating on both local issues and national concerns such as voter suppression, health care and the DREAM Act. Rather than have one person direct activities from the top, “it’s the people who are organizing in their own communities who are best placed to adapt their message,” say Leah Greenberg, Indivisible’s co-founder.
While this democratic approach is effective, experts also say there are benefits to having a leader.
“Social movements need a message and leaders are really good at helping to shape that,” says Rojas, the Indiana professor. “Movements need money and resources and leaders are really good at getting those, too.”
Justice for Harith Augustus & All Victims of Racist Police Terror. ANSWER Chicago and BLM Women of Faith will be joining protesters at 5 pm at 71st and Jeffrey. Join us and spread the word!
Leaders also can mobilize people behind a common cause.
“A lot of people out there today feel there’s something really wrong and broken with the country, with the world,” says Karthik Ganapathy, rapid response director at MoveOn.org, a public policy advocacy group. “The value of having a centralized leader is there’s someone saying, ‘Here’s what you can do about it.’ As of now, though, he says, there’s no social movement or protest leader who “can really claim that mantle the way that King did.”
But even in King’s day, movements couldn’t be reduced to a face on TV or a voice at the pulpit.
Whether it was the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, the Vietnam War protest at the Lincoln Memorial or the farm workers’ strike in California, each history-making event depended on hundreds, if not thousands of foot soldiers who never saw their names in the newspapers but organized, raised money and engaged in other grass-roots work.
And many leaders were backed by formidable organizations: For King, it was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; for anti-war activist Tom Hayden, the Students for a Democratic Society; for feminist Betty Friedan, the National Organization for Women.
“We will always have voices that rise because they have the clear articulation of the agenda,” says the Rev. William Barber, co-chairman of the Poor People’s Campaign, a civil disobedience movement modeled after a 1968 plan by King to focus attention on race, poverty, and injustice. Back then if you’d asked Chavez or King, he says, “they would never say they were the movement, they would say they were servants of the movement.”
Hasan Jeffries, an associate professor at Ohio State University and expert on African-American history, says the civil rights movement was always decentralized, but the media, looking for someone quotable, would zero in on one person. Often, that was King.
With King’s assassination in 1968, he says, there wasn’t just the loss of a magnetic leader, but a sense his nonviolent approach wasn’t working and a flourishing of the black power movement.
These days, there may be no one dominant leader in the African-American community, but social media like Twitter and Facebook offer a different way to rally supporters.
“Activists are now able to push back, mainly through social media and provide channels for multiple voices in ways that simply were unavailable on a large scale 50 years earlier,” he says.
That doesn’t mean the message gets through, Jeffries adds, noting some people still ask what Black Lives Matter wants, though he believes it’s abundantly clear.
“Do you need a single person to express this? Some may say, ‘Yes,'” he says. “But even when a single person tries to articulate something, if the audience is purposely choosing to be not receptive, it doesn’t matter if it’s one person or 100 people, that voice is not going to be heard. It’s not so much who’s saying it, it’s what they’re saying is the problem.”
Einwohner, the Purdue sociologist, says when history books are written decades from now, they’ll include Black Lives Matter, the Dreamers and giant demonstrations such as the women’s marches.
“I think we’re going to remember this more as a cycle of protests, which were planned and organized by lots of people,” she says. “These rallies didn’t come out of nowhere. People are taking action. I can’t think of a name or a face that necessarily is going to be remembered 50 years from now. But will these movements be remembered? Absolutely.”
The constant drumbeat of negative news stories about the latest neighborhood or school shooting is unnerving. Some people find that they’ve become numb to most of it, except the most shocking of stories. As people of faith, many of us find ways to peacefully address issues of violence that plague our communities. Dr. Melvin E. Banks, the founder of UMI (Urban Ministries, Inc.), has biblically based, two-minute podcast shorts that cover injustice, gang violence, drug dealers, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We’ve pulled them from Dr. Banks’ daily radio program called Daily Direction, which covers a variety of topics.
When I enrolled in the Masters of Divinity program at a conservative evangelical seminary, I had no other aspirations than to earn a degree and obtain a ministry position suited to my skills and experience. I thought I would have three or four years once I started school to decide on a ministry placement. But from the moment I arrived on campus, I was assaulted with opportunities.
Numerous individuals and organizations have approached me, offering me church planting and pastoring opportunities all around the country. Well-meaning folks, many of whom are White ministers, are eager to get a biblically faithful, Black, Christian man into leadership and help them become more multi-ethnic and multicultural.
But these sincere offers are sincerely misguided. Most people present me with leadership positions having only just met me. They have no idea about my biblical qualifications, skills, or reputation. They simply see a Black guy with good theology, not a sinner whose call needs to be confirmed. As a result, the landscape is littered with the crushed hopes of churches and ministers who sent their men out too early.
I know churches are excited about any prospective leader, especially if he happens to be Black. But before you launch a promising young, Christian, African American man into ministry too soon, a few words of caution.
When churches find an African American man with leadership potential, they are understandably enthusiastic. While there are more of these men than we think, there are fewer than we need. But eagerness on the part of church leaders often tempts the young minister to arrogance.
The Bible warns us against puffing up a young minister’s pride. In explaining the qualifications for overseers, Paul says, “He [the overseer] must not be a recent convert or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:6, ESV). The Bible teaches us that a man who is new to the faith must not be given a leadership role in the church too soon. Rather, a man must be tested to ensure that his faith is genuine and his spirituality is mature. Apart from an extended period of discernment, a young man or recent convert is in danger of believing in his own skills and promise instead of desperately clinging to his Savior.
Leaders and laymen alike must measure their comments. Do they affirm a man based on exceptional character or excellent aptitude or because of his color or cultural background? Are they giving him opportunities based on demonstrated diligence or his potential to “reach” a certain demographic?
Connect Young Adult African American Christians to Seasoned African American Christians
Even though God uses men of all races and ethnicities to disciple each other, young, Black, Christian men who are preparing for the pastorate or some other leadership role would uniquely benefit from connecting with others in similar situations. These future leaders should get connected with other Black Christian men who have been or are currently in the same position.
I have personally benefited from the wise counsel of my pastor, who is also African American and has been ministering for nearly 20 years. I also have several other “gray-heads” from around the country that I frequently call on for advice. These men are able to help me keep a humble perspective as I am inundated with offers for ministry. They have helped me maneuver away from positions that would have exploited me for my racial and cultural background, and have guided me into areas that will ensure my long-term stability in the ministry.
Such connections can facilitate accountability so young, Christian men may be empowered to resist the enticement to overconfidence and the threat of isolation. Current church leaders must do all they can—from paying for trips to conferences to allowing time for regular phone calls with a mentee—to encourage these relationships.
Own Your Own Preparation
Not all of the responsibility for sending a man to start in the ministry falls on the current leadership. The upcoming generation of African American Christian leaders should own their own development.
Young men usually have no lack of ambition. We’ll jump at the slightest slice of opportunity. Thinking we have more wisdom than we actually possess often gets us into situations that prove harmful to ourselves and others.
But a young man must take ownership of his own preparation. He should know himself well enough—in light of Scripture—to determine his own spiritual readiness for ministry. Of course, these are conversations that must be had in conjunction with other experienced ministers, but no one else has the potential to know a man as well as he knows himself.
If the elders around him are pushing a young, Black Christian to start a ministry too soon, then he should respectfully yet confidently inform them of their error. It takes two to make a thing go right—or wrong.
God Has a Timeline
Underneath the push to send out young African Americans too soon is a fundamental distrust of God’s sovereignty. Although a church committee would never admit this, what often motivates them is a lack of faith. They sense the pressing call to make disciples of all nations but they don’t trust God to do it. Instead, they try to wrest control of kingdom-building from God and do it themselves. The result is scores of Black Christian ministers who succumb to depression, addiction, and burnout.
Jesus tells us, however, “I will build my church” (from Matthew 16:18, ESV). The work of expanding the church and preparing ministers in the church belongs to Christ. He is the one who shapes a man’s heart and calls him into the field. But Jesus gives humankind a part to play as well. “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (from Luke 10:2, ESV). We are to pray that God would send us the men with the gifts, skills, and calling for ministry. This is not to say that we shouldn’t actively prepare men for God’s work. Christian leaders must entrust the Gospel to “faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (from 2 Timothy 2:2, ESV).
But the Good News is that in the fullness of time “God sent His son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law so that we might receive adoption as sons” (from Galatians 4:4–5, ESV). The incarnation of Jesus Christ testifies that God is thoroughly involved in the process of preparing leaders.
If God had perfect timing in sending His Son as a ransom for many, then He will also have perfect timing in training and sending laborers into His harvest. Faith in the Gospel allows us to realize the need for more young, African American, Christian ministers, yet rest in God’s timing for sending them out.
A photo of Jahi McMath shown at her funeral service at Acts Full Gospel Church in Oakland, Calif. AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
California teenager Jahi McMath, who suffered catastrophic brain injury as a result of a routine tonsil surgery, died on June 22, 2018.
Her death came after four years of her family fighting in court to continue her care in California. Eventually, they moved her to a facility in New Jersey, a state that accommodates religious views that don’t recognize brain death.
Much of the popular discussion in the case centered on the family’s refusal to accept the diagnosis of brain death. However, as a philosopher who writes on bioethics and race, I believe an underappreciated aspect of the discussion was the role of race – both in how the medical personnel dealt with the family and how the family interpreted their interactions with the medical establishment.
The surgery and outcome
On Dec. 9, 2013, the 13-year-old McMath entered Children’s Hospital and Research Center in Oakland, California, for what should have been a routine tonsillectomy. The young girl was, according to her mother’s account, frightened that something would go wrong. Her mother reassured McMath that she would be okay.
McMath’s post-surgical complications began about an hour after her surgery. A nurse provided a bin to catch the blood that McMath had begun spitting up. Although the nurses indicated to the family that some post-surgical bleeding was normal, two hours later, McMath’s blood filled two plastic bins and the bandages packing her nose were saturated with blood. Her hospital gown was also covered in blood.
According to the family, four and a half hours passed before a physician saw her, despite the family’s repeated pleas for intervention. The hospital has maintained that they can not discuss Jahi’s case in detail because of privacy laws. Bleeding complications, though rare, can occur after tonsillectomy because tonsils are near arteries.
As a result of the immense blood loss, McMath’s heart stopped and her brain was deprived of oxygen. Three days later, on Dec. 12, 2013, the medical staff at Children’s Hospital declared McMath brain dead. Hospital personnel encouraged the family to withdraw life support and donate her organs.
McMath’s family refused to accept the diagnosis, and a court battle to keep McMath on life support ensued.
A judge in California initially ruled that McMath could remain on life support until Jan. 7, 2014. However, the Alameda County coroner issued a death certificate anyway.
Philosopher Jeffrey P. Bishop, who holds the chair of health care ethics at Saint Louis University, writing in Harvard Divinity School bulletin noted the ethical oddities of the case. In California, once two physicians confirm brain death, the patient is legally dead. The body is then technically released to the coroner before being released to the family so that they can make arrangements. In the case of McMath, she was still in the hospital and on a ventilator when these procedures kicked in.
From the beginning, the case was tangled up with all sorts of questions regarding the nature and diagnosis of brain death. Although there are long-established criteria, how brain death is determined in practice can vary. These differences in practices can contribute to confusion, particularly among the lay public, about brain death.
Her family rejected the brain death diagnosis alleging the hospital had a conflict of interest and simply wanted McMath’s organs.
Revisiting a history of medical racism
Rather than dismiss the family’s concerns as paranoid or ignorant, it is important to understand the historical realities faced by black patients in their encounters with the U.S. medical system.
There is a long historical record of using African-Americans for medical experimentation. For example, medical experimentation performed by J. Marion Sims, “the father of modern gynecology,” highlights the medical establishment’s disregard for black people.
Sims, who began conducting his gynecological experiments in the 1840s, is credited with developing a surgical procedure to repair vesicovaginal fistula, a hole that develops between the vaginal wall and the bladder, resulting in incontinence. However, Sims achieved his success by experimenting on enslaved women, often without anesthesia.
Sims wasn’t the only one. During the 19th century, medical schools used both enslaved and free black people, often without their consent, to teach their white medical students anatomy, disease progression and diagnosis. This practice continued after slavery.
Additionally, the graves of African-Americans were robbed and their bodies disinterred so that medical students could use black bodies as cadavers. Aware of these practices, African-American communities were deeply suspicious of local medical schools and unsure whether the medical personnel were actually “treating” them or merely “experimenting” on them.
Few examples of the abuse of African-Americans in medical experimentation loom larger than the Tuskegee syphilis experiment – a 40-year-long study of disease progression of syphilis in 600 men in the Tuskegee, Alabama, area that began in 1932. The study was sponsored by the U.S. Public Health Service.
None of the 399 men who had syphilis were ever told of their diagnosis. Nor were these men or their partners treated with penicillin once penicillin became the standard treatment for syphilis in 1945. In 1997, President Bill Clinton issued a formal apology on behalf of the U.S. government to the eight remaining survivors of the Tuskegee experiment.
One presidential apology, however, could not erase the sense of mistrust that many African-Americans feel toward health care institutions.
And the medical injustice continues: There are wide gaps in outcomes between whites and African-Americans in a variety of diseases. For example, the American Cancer Society reports that, of all the racial and ethnic groups in the U.S., African-Americans, are more likely to die from most cancers.
Lower quality of care?
African-Americans also report lower quality of health care and greater dissatisfaction with the care they receive. In addtion, they are significantly more likely to report experiencing racial discrimination and negative attitudes by health care personnel than non-Hispanic whites.
Medical mistrust and the resulting dissatisfaction have been connected to patient anxiety, as well as lower engagement in health care decision-making between patient and provider.
“No one was listening to us, and I can’t prove it, but I really feel in my heart: if Jahi was a little white girl, I feel we would have gotten a little more help and attention.”
Sadly, Winkfield is not alone in her suspicions.
It is possible that the ultimate outcome might still have been tragic. Even with the most attentive care, McMath might have died. However, the family feeling that the medical team did not do all that they could have done for their loved one, and that this, for them, was a function of race, needlessly inflicted additional injury.
Rwandans sing and pray at the Evangelical Restoration Church in the Kimisagara neighborhood of the capital Kigali, Rwanda, on April 6, 2014. Rwanda’s government closed hundreds of churches and dozens of mosques in 2018, as it seeks to assert more control over a vibrant religious community whose sometimes makeshift operations, authorities say, have threatened the lives of followers. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
After closing more than 700 churches and some mosques in March, Rwandan government officials have moved to institute guidelines for how faith groups operate in the majority-Christian East African country.
Rwanda’s minister in the office of the president has brought to Parliament a draft law that would require Christian and Muslim clerics to attain university education before preaching in churches or mosques. The law would require clerics to have a bachelor’s degree and a valid certificate in religious studies. It would also bar clergy who have been convicted of crimes of genocide, genocidal ideology, discrimination or other sectarian practices.
“I agree with the law. Some of our church groups have been operating in a dangerous manner,” Evalister Mugabo, bishop of the Lutheran Church in Rwanda, told Religion News Service.
Churches and mosques would also be required to institute an internal disagreement resolution body to complement the work of their umbrella organizations and the government’s dispute resolution authority, which resolves conflicts involving different faiths.
Evalister Mugabo, bishop of the Lutheran Church in Rwanda. Photo via Evalister Mugabo Facebook
The measure, according to government officials, will bring order among churches, some of which are suspected of misleading people.
Judith Uwizeye, minister in the office of President Paul Kagame, presented the draft law. “Everyone would wake up in the morning and call people to start a church. Setting up a faith-based organization didn’t require anything. We want to bring about better organization on the way faith-based organizations work,” she is quoted as saying.
The draft law received wide support from most legislators in Rwanda’s Parliament. It will move to the committee stage, after which it will be brought back to Parliament for endorsement.
In 1994, the country about the size of Maryland witnessed a genocide that left an estimated 800,000 ethnic Tutsi and moderate members of the Hutu tribe dead. Years later, senior church leaders were among those accused of killing citizens or aiding in their deaths and were arraigned before the International Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, in nearby Tanzania.
Despite its dark past, Rwanda, like many African countries, has witnessed an upsurge in churches in both urban and rural areas. But in March, its government took a radical move, shutting down hundreds of them in the capital of Kigali.
The action was replicated in other towns, amid support from some religious leaders and criticism from others. The authorities said the churches lacked basic infrastructure, security and hygiene and were contributing to noise pollution.
Those most affected by the shuttering were small Pentecostal churches. Jean Bosco Nsabimana, founder of Patmos Church, a Pentecostal congregation, questioned why government officials had not targeted bars and nightclubs.
But other religious leaders see wisdom in the government move. “Churches are mushrooming too quickly and are exploiting poor people. If they are not controlled, more and more will continue to come up,” said Innocent Maganya, head of the department of mission and Islamic studies at Tangaza University College. “They are being started for personal gains, not for that of the followers. Without discrimination, a bit of sanity is needed.”
Maganya noted that other countries require pastors to have a degree or certificate. “On the surface, I don’t think they are interfering with freedom of worship, unless there is a hidden motive,” said Maganya.
But Mugabo said the requirement that clergy have a bachelor’s degree will affect many young churches like the Lutheran Church in Rwanda. The Roman Catholic Church has been dominant in Rwanda, and institutions that can offer a degree in divinity for other denominations are few.
“Most of the pastors have certificates from local Bible schools,” said Mugabo. “Global missions must look at this as an emergency.”
With the new rules and regulations, Mugabo has been negotiating for affiliation with the University of Iringa, based in Tanzania. The institution is owned by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania. Mugabo has sought the use of the university’s curriculum in teaching at his church’s Bible school. The university will also award the pastors educational certificates.
“We made this plan because we can’t afford to take many pastors out of the country for study at once. We do not have enough resources, so we decided to adopt mass training from within,” said Mugabo.
— Fredrick Nzwili is a journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.
The first truly African-American musical form, the “Spirituals,” took shape in the 17th and 18th centuries within the generations of slaves born into the tough American experience. Music was a daily part of their survival and sustenance.
Spirituals were sung “a cappella,” that is, without instrumental accompaniment. Voices were blended over rhythms provided by clapping hands, stamping feet and makeshift percussion. The words and melodies were improvised, not written down and never sung the same way twice. The singers remained untrained in the formalities of music.
“Its truth dies under training like flowers under hot water.”
These early songs, over a hundred or more years later, gave rise to 20th century gospel music as well as secular genres including blues and jazz, R&B (rhythm and blues) and doo-wop, a style of ‘50s vocal group pop.
These folk preachers blended homespun sermon and song to offer life lessons on how to survive in a world of inequality and virulent racism.
While the folk preachers may have perfected their preaching skills in Southern churches, they broadened their reach through phonographs records. From the mid-1920s well into the Depression, there were roughly 85 preachers whose hundreds of singing sermons were recorded and heard throughout the black community nationwide via 78-rpm records.
Their records were advertised in nationally distributed black newspapers, such as The Pittsburgh Courier and The Chicago Defender. Their names were famous within the African-American community and some of the better sellers included Rev. J. C. Burnett, Rev. T.N.T. Burton, Rev. A.W. Nix, and Rev. Sundown Jesse. The most prolific of all was Rev. J. M. Gates of Atlanta, Georgia. His more than a hundred sermons were released on a variety of labels – Paramount, Columbia, Vocalion, Okeh, and Victor – that specialized in records that catered to “race.”
The case of Rev. Gates
What gave Gates prominence, besides his stellar performances, were his sensational titles, many drawn from Biblical verse, others from African-American vernacular. The titles enticed people to buy the record to find out more.
“Dead Cat on the Line” was Rev. Gates taking on marriage infidelity. He opened the sermon by saying,
“If a child is no way like his father, there’s a dead cat on the line.”
His reference was to a time when a cat might get up on the power lines and die from electrocution, cutting off telegraph signals so no messages could get through. The phrase meant “we’re not communicating here.” But with the dead cat festering up there, Gates was also alluding to the problems of infidelity.
“Kinky Hair is No Disgrace” spoke to demoralization stemming from negative value placed on “negro” features.“ Gates preached,
“Skin and hair don’t make the inside of man or woman good…Remember that God looks on the inside and man looks on the outside…And a whole lot of this hair straightening is just strictly so men can see it…You needn’t worry about your hair…You straighten your heart or your brain…Get something straight on the inside. You know it!”
And his masterpiece was based on a line from the Gospel of Matthew, “Straining at a Gnat and Swallowing a Camel.” “Straining at a gnat,” implied getting worked up about small matters, and “swallowing a camel,” was a reminder to people about missing what was truly important right in front of them, in this case the incongruities of racism. He sang,
“You! You negro-haters. You that can’t sit with him on the street car. You that can’t eat at the same table with him. I’m talking about you who can’t sit in your own automobile with him. Aah, but I’ll tell you what you can do. You can eat what they cook. Sleep in their bed. You can let them drive your car while you sit in the rear and he handle your life in his hands. You’re straining at a gnat and swallowin’ a camel.”
The music of Rev. Gates and his fellow preachers provided the sonic moments for the religious seeds of the budding Civil Rights Movement.