Unquestionably, one of, if not the, most influential institutions in the African-American community is still the church. Bishops, who have been elected to head their denominations, and pastors, who, by popular acclaim through congregational support of their message, oversee mega-churches, wield an enormous amount of influence among blacks, especially the pre-’60s generation.
Since Reconstruction, the black church has served as a source of strength, comfort and leadership. Ministers in the black community are, for the most part, accorded respect, and thus far the majority of black community leaders also bear the title “reverend” before their names, a condition not existing in the white community to such a degree.
A prime example of the way the church should react is demonstrated by the members of the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the scene of one of the most horrific crimes of the decade. Nine members of the congregation were murdered by a gunman during a gathering for prayer. While the president and the media immediately leapt, yet again, upon the racial aspect and fostered “hate-crime” headlines, the members, survivors and family members have demonstrated the essence of what real Christians are called upon to be like.
There have been public declarations of forgiveness for the murderer, and, at the same time, there has been no racial animus displayed by any of the members. A community march is being scheduled that includes blacks and whites and survivors and members of the family. This is a pre-eminent example of what the church in the black community exemplified from the 1800s to the 1960s.
In the decades since Reconstruction (media hype to the contrary), despite specifically targeted barriers and intense local, state and even some national hostility, African-Americans have made almost unimaginable strides. Few reasonable people would attempt to argue, objectively, that America has not progressed, literally by leaps and bounds, both socially and economically.
In their book, “America in Black and White; One Nation, Indivisible,” co-authors Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom pointed out: “No group in American history has ever improved its position so dramatically in so short a time.” One can only begin to imagine the impact on the overall political, cultural and economic life of the United States had a Democrat president (Andrew Johnson) not ordered the removal of 40,000 freed slaves from 400,000 acres of prime land that was promised to them by Republicans. Can you visualize what America would be like today had not a Democrat-controlled Congress reversed the anti-segregation provisions of the civil rights legislation passed by Republicans in 1866, 1870, 1871 and 1875?
The impact on the world, not just America, of millions of free blacks having lived and worked for 200 years in a colorblind society, while attending churches like the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston, South Carolina, would be incalculable. Literally trillions more dollars would have been generated by the American economy, making the most robust economic engine ever to exist even more powerful.
Let us carefully observe the responses of the media, both political parties and the president to the total lack of racist hyperbole and the failure to claim or blame racism – and all whites in general – by the membership for what one individual did in their church.
Could this be a lesson from which most of America could profit today? Yes, there was injustice, and we grieve, but we forgive and we bear no hate. Love never fails.
That should be the prayer uttered by all of us – for all of us.