‘Righteous Wingmen’: Gardner C. Taylor Was One of the Vanguard of Erudite Black Ministers Who Shepherded the Civil Rights Movement

The Reverend Dr. Gardner C. Taylor in 1979. (PHOTOGRAPH BY TED THAI/THE LIFE PICTURE COLLECTION/GETTY)
The Reverend Dr. Gardner C. Taylor in 1979. (PHOTOGRAPH BY TED THAI/THE LIFE PICTURE COLLECTION/GETTY)

by Samuel G. Freedman

Numerous obituaries for the Reverend Dr. Gardner C. Taylor, who died on Easter Sunday at the age of ninety-six, have obliged the historical and journalistic requirements to compile his achievements. And those achievements were indeed awesome: Taylor, who spent forty-two years as the pastor of Concord Baptist Church of Christ, in Brooklyn, one of the most significant African-American pulpits in the nation, was called the “Prince of Preachers.” He delivered thousands of sermons and mentored hundreds of young ministers, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Bill Clinton, and was hailed by Baylor University as one of the world’s most effective preachers.

Even so, Taylor made his greatest contribution not as an individual but as part of a politicized generation of African-American churchmen around the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Contrary to the popular portrayal of King as a lone Moses, Taylor and others who worked with him both embodied and enacted the concept of shared, organized leadership. They were righteous wingmen.

Some of them, like Fred Shuttlesworth, in Birmingham, and C. K. Steele, in Tallahassee, remained in the South, and were integral members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King’s political base in the region. Taylor, who was born in Baton Rouge, typified the cohort of men who would become the movement’s vanguard in the North: L. V. Booth, in Cincinnati; Otis Moss, Jr., in Cleveland; Jeremiah Wright, Sr., in Philadelphia; Wyatt Tee Walker, in Harlem; and Charles G. Adams, in Detroit.

Born and reared under segregation, they were the ministerial version of the Great Migration, crossing the Mason-Dixon Line for their seminary studies and doctoral degrees. (Taylor earned his divinity degree at Oberlin College, in Ohio.) Perhaps the most erudite group of black clergy ever to emerge in America, they moved effortlessly in their preaching from the high-flown rhetoric of scriptural eschatology and etymology to the earthy vernacular of the black street and back again.

Ministers like Taylor also proved themselves by being builders, managers, and C.E.O.s. After being called to its pulpit in 1948, Taylor built Concord’s membership to more than eight thousand. Four years later, after a fire severely damaged the church, the pastor raised $1.7 million—the equivalent of more than fifteen million dollars today—for reconstruction, from a congregation that ranged from the working poor to the middle class. Concord created a school, a nursing home, a credit union, and subsidized housing.

Absent the ferment of the civil-rights movement, churches like Concord and ministers like Taylor might have remained isolated islands of black self-determination. Instead, partly through Taylor’s own efforts, they became hubs of a freedom movement that transformed the nation and sent ripples around the globe. As early as 1956, during the Montgomery bus boycott, King came to Concord Baptist Church to address ten thousand listeners, and raised more than a million dollars while he was there. Four years later, King asked Taylor to run for the presidency of the National Baptist Convention, the organizational arm of the largest black denomination in the country.

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SOURCE: The New Yorker

Samuel G. Freedman, a frequent contributor to The New Yorker’s Web site, is the author of seven books, including “Breaking The Line: The Year in Black College Football That Transformed the Game and Changed the Course of Civil Rights.”

 

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