Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

The Black Church

BOND: You talked recently about how the church generally, black church particularly, is kind of a legitimizing myth. At the same time, this institution -- 70,000 in the country right now, individual congregations -- but a long, long tradition among denominations providing leadership -- why has this institution particularly been so important to African America? Why this institution?

FRANKLIN: Why, I think it's rooted in the experience of slavery and the fact that the early black churches that emerged in this country in the eighteenth century were the only institutions where African Americans could gather with a sense of -- a measure of self-determination. You know, "We define the rules here. It's our rules of order that govern this organization." And a sense of relative safety, a sense of connectedness to other individuals who are not family. And so the church as a kind of surrogate family, extended family, emerge within the black church venue. And so for me it's unremarkable that the church became the most important and central socializing institution in our community. They couldn't do everything and so there was a need for the NAACP and the Urban League and other civil rights groups to advance issues of freedom and justice in the larger society. And yet, the church is very much a part of those movements as well. But it also understood it had another agenda and that was the agenda of people-making, of fostering family, of healing wounds, both physical and psychic wounds that people encountered as they grappled every day in a racist society. And that was hard work. That's important work. And every week the people gather with the expectation, at least in a black church, that some measure of re-knitting the unraveling fabric of family, neighborhood, of civil society will happen.

Not that we will be affirmed as detached individuals, aspiring and moving up the economic ladder, according to the logic of capitalism, but that we are reminded that we are community. That's the best of the black church as a servant and a facilitator of civil society. And when I use that term I simply mean connecting strangers, and promoting a sense of citizenship that prompts people to act in ways that advance a common good, whether it serves their own economic or personal interests at all.