Show reveals rich legacy of Black church

Henry Louis Gates of “Finding Your Roots” speaks during the PBS segment of the Summer 2019 Television Critics Association Press Tour 2019 at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on July 29, 2019, in Beverly Hills, Calif. Gates’ new PBS production, “The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song,” is based on his new book of the same name. TNS

George Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing of Trayvon Martin on a Saturday night in 2013. The next morning, I went to church wearing a hoodie.

This was mid-July, hardly hoodie weather. But other brothers showed up similarly attired, including our pastor. This gesture — an expression of solidarity and raw pain — was no surprise. Indeed, I’d wager it was repeated in many black churches — and almost no white ones.

And that, I think, speaks to a central thesis of “The Black Church,” a documentary that premieres Tuesday on PBS. Namely, that when Black people and white ones talk about faith, they largely tend to mean two different things. For African Americans, faith is not confined to the hope of heaven, but must also contend with the hardship of Earth.

Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., who executive produced and hosts the documentary, tells me this is why Karl Marx was mistaken when he “criticized religion as keeping people from rebelling because they could suffer anything on Earth and go to heaven forever.” That may be true for some, but it was never the case for Black people. For African Americans, says Gates, church is where “we learned to worship a liberating God. We learned to develop faith in the future — and not a future after death, which was part of the religion, of course, but a future here on Earth where our children and their grandchildren would one day be free.”

It is a perspective that often — not always, but often — confounds our white brethren. Note that the more directly a black preacher confronts racial and social inequality, the more likely he is to be treated by them as somehow counterfeit — not a “real” preacher. It’s happened to Sen. Raphael Warnock, to Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Jeremiah Wright.

And yes, it happened to Martin Luther King, who, on the last night of his life, said, “It’s all right to talk about ‘long white robes over yonder,’ but ultimately, people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here.” That message is at odds with how some of us conceive faith. But as Rev. William Barber of the new Poor People’s Campaign puts it, “There’s something wrong with a religion that has nothing to say about the oppressive realities that exist in life. God is the God of the oppressed.”

Nor is that oppression some mere artifact of the past. “Barack Obama’s election woke up the sleeping giant of white supremacy,” says Gates. “I tell my students at Harvard, there are two streams flowing under the floorboards of Western culture. One is anti-Semitism, one is anti-Black racism. Barack Obama in the White House, man, that stream came erupting like Old Faithful at Yellowstone Park.”

African Americans deal with that stream now as they always have: marshaling faith as “a redemptive force for a nation whose original sin was found in their own ancestors’ enslavement.” This faith, says Gates, enabled them “to make a way out of no way, not to kill themselves or kill everybody around them, to hold on, to have families, to suffer the indignities of slavery from beatings and rape, through uncompensated labor making other people rich, because one day, you would be a journalist at The [Miami] Herald and I would be sitting at Harvard University. Now, they wouldn’t have known about The Herald, they wouldn’t have known about Harvard, but they knew that a better day was coming, here on Earth.”

It is a faith that still, somehow, miraculously, abides, as “The Black Church” documents and that Sunday morning in July attests. For 400 years, the church has been where we took our hurt.

And found our hope.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172. Readers may contact him via email at

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(10) comments


Keep the pressure on Mr Gates for the stars are in line for reparations.


What's going to happen is "repair." Here's the thing. Meritocracy works because people who know success is either hopeless or assured don't have any motivation. They are disconnected from cause and effect, other than perhaps very limited forms of it: avoiding big trouble. But meritocracy isn't an all or nothing proposition. Equality of outcome between individuals is impossible, but equality of outcome between demographic groups is not. You can tilt the tilt against a group to a tilt for them, and over time that group will have equality of outcome as a whole, but individuals will still have to make the right moves to get the most out of it. As for the actual topic of the article, the Black churches on the whole do not function to just aid tolerance of oppression (instead of dignified spiritual survival of it, which involves undying will to escape it), so that's why they get blown up and shot up.


Everything is in our head even time is locked in our head.


What exactly is your fascination with reparations? I can't tell if you are serious. I hope not. Its a really stupid idea.


The state of being subject to unjust treatment or control can only be removed with the kind of wealth that brings meaning to the words, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, (Declaration of Independence). Most American blacks cannot own a home for they are denied the wealth. Whites in America have roughly 10 times the amount of wealth as the average Black family. Reparations or wealth will close disparities in housing giving American blacks the ability to rise from ghetto living. Nothing else will remove them from the oppression they live under.


Alright, John. Since you think money is the answer, get going. I'm sure you have some. There are are many people who have alot. Organize the willing and give. You don't need to take from some tarpaper shack white guy to give to a needy black woman. Just take from Bill and Melinda, Bill and Hillary, and Nancy P. How about some uber rich blacks like Barack and Michelle or Kamala H.? These suggestions are only meant to inspire you as to the type of person you can bilk. Get working. Yeah, it takes some of that meritocracy thing to be successful. Not sure what rdsouth would say about that. But just get going. Heres what I'm going to tell you, though. If you want to start a race and class war that will shred this country all you have to do is get the Democrats to push through reparations. The money would be taken from some people who lost a loved one in the Civil War. It would be taken from people who can't afford it and given to Patrick Mahomes. It would not work except to tear us apart. If you want to do something, get to work convincing people to give ONLY their OWN money, not other people's money. You can start with Leonard Pitts, who has more money than either of us.


Just take from Bill and Melinda, Bill and Hillary, and Nancy P. How about some uber rich blacks like Barack and Michelle or Kamala H.?

Congratulations on naming people who do use their money and influence to help others. That’s unlike the Kochs, the Trumps, the late Sheldon Adelson and Rush Limbaugh who either hoard their money or use it to support politicians who’ll help them push tax cuts and policies so they’ll have more. It’s okay to worship mammon if you’re a Republican.

How much money does Pitts have anyway?


I think reparations for historical injustices are out of the question. But something else is truly needed: repair in the sense of fixing the way people of color, particularly Black people, start the race well behind the goal line. We can maintain a certain amount of meritocracy and reach equality of outcome between demographic groups by practicing affirmative action. A certain amount of welfare will also be necessary, but that should be colorblind. The needy are needy regardless. And if some groups are more often needy, then helping the needy helps them disproportionately. These two liberal classics are all we need to effect repair.


Kr, did you insinuate the Obama are big givers? How about they give a little more? They do live in a 10 million dollar enclave at "Mahtha's Vinyahd" don't they? Real close to Chappaquiddick. Appropriate, right. One set of rules for thee, and another set for me.


Whatever 😑

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