Progressive Baptists Say It’s Time for More Advocacy

On Wednesday morning (Aug. 9), Rev. Frederick Haynes III made a pilgrimage to the site in Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, was shot and killed by a White police officer nine years earlier on Aug. 9, 2014. Haynes, the senior pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, talked about it a few hours later and a few miles away during the annual session of the Progressive National Baptist Convention.

“I find it prophetic and appropriate that we are in St. Louis on Aug. 9,” said Haynes, who was recently tapped as Rev. Jesse Jackson’s successor to lead the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.

“We’re glad to be here in St. Louis today, because that same community where [Mike Brown’s] body lay for over four-and-a-half hours has shown us that after every crucifixion, there is a resurrection,” Haynes added. “We salute the citizens of that wonderful community there in Ferguson who rose up in prophetic protest and declared that we are not going to stand by and allow you to thuggify our young Black men, we’re not going to stand by and allow you to do nothing about the criminality of a justice system that is unjust and downright criminal. And so nine years later, things have changed and they are changing because of the community there in Ferguson.”

A little later at the PNBC meeting, Mike Brown Sr. addressed the group, talking about the pain and trauma he, his family, and the community still feel from the loss of his son. And he emphasized the work they are trying to do now to improve the community in honor of his son.

Left: Rev. Frederick Haynes III speaks at the annual session of the Progressive National Baptist Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, on Aug. 9, 2023. Right: Michael Brown Sr. (center) speaks at the annual session of the Progressive National Baptist Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, on Aug. 9, 2023. (Brian Kaylor/Word&Way)

Haynes also pointed out that they were gathering just a couple of days after the 58th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which is being picked apart by the U.S. Supreme Court and various states attempting to roll back voting rights. He and other speakers stressed the importance of advocating for voting rights and mobilizing people to vote.

“There is an all-out war on democracy,” he said. “We’ve come here 58 years after the Voting Rights bill was passed to say we’re going to revive it, and then nine years after the slaying of Mike Brown to say there’s another resurrection that’s about to take place. … We’re determined to make America great — finally.”

Advocating for reforms in policing, criminal justice, and voting rights isn’t unusual for a PNBC meeting. This convention was literally birthed in advocacy and has for decades preached that Jesus and social justice go hand-in-hand. But this isn’t always the image of Christianity in the United States. So Haynes emphasized that Progressive Baptists were there to remind people that “there is more than one representation of Christianity in this country.” He contrasted their vision with that of White Christian Nationalism, which he insisted should just be known as White Nationalism since it isn’t Christian.

“If they’re Christian, then they follow the one who was born homeless, they follow the one who was under a genocidal policy of death because of Herod, they follow the one who grew up in a hood called Nazareth, they follow the one who gave free healthcare to those with preexisting conditions, they follow the one who fed those who were food insecure, they follow the one who brought in those who were othered and cast out, they follow the one who got lynched under a criminal justice system that was criminal and downright unjust, but since I’m Baptist, they follow the one who got up on Sunday,” Haynes said. “So in light of the fact that they don’t really follow him, they simply co-opt him in order to baptize their bigotry, I don’t call them Christian.”

Meeting this week with the theme “It’s Time” based on Esther 4:14, the PNBC annual session brought together hundreds of Baptists from across the country and beyond. So for this issue of A Public Witness, virtually meet me in St. Louis to hear from Progressive Baptists as they advocate for an engaged faith.

The annual session of the Progressive National Baptist Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, on Aug. 9, 2023. (Brian Kaylor/Word&Way)

The Progressive National Baptist Convention was birthed in the civil rights movement. Some younger Black Baptist pastors wanted to see the National Baptist Convention USA, the largest Black denomination in the country, do more to support the civil rights movement led by one of its own, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. This sentiment intensified after longtime leader Rev. Joseph Jackson in 1960 had discouraged participation in civil rights protests, even criticizing civil disobedience in favor of a more conservative law-and-order approach.

So the more activist pastors nominated Rev. Gardner C. Taylor in 1961 to serve as NBCUSA president. During the contentious NBCUSA meeting in Kansas City, Missouri, Jackson’s group blocked others from coming to the podium amid calls for a head count vote. One minister fell from the stage and died a few days later. After the meeting in which Jackson maintained control of the convention, he removed King as vice president of the NBCUSA’s Baptist Training Union and Sunday School Congress. Jackson would continue to lead the NBCUSA until 1982.

In response to the 1961 meeting and the action against King, Rev. Venchael Booth invited delegates to meet at his church, Zion Baptist in Cincinnati, Ohio, in November 1961 to launch a new denominational body. The PNBC quickly became the denominational home of King and his family. King addressed the PNBC’s meetings every year until his death. Other civil rights leaders in the new convention included Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Rev. Benjamin Mays, and Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker. The most prominent PNBC minister today is Rev. Raphael Warnock, who is also a U.S. Senator and senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, where Martin Luther King Sr. and Martin Luther King Jr. were pastors.

“This is the denominational home of the civil rights movement,” said Rev. Willie Francois III, senior pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Pleasantville, New Jersey, during the PNBC meeting on Aug. 9. “You do not have the Civil Rights Act of 1964 without PNBC. You do not have the Voting Rights Act of 1965 without PNBC. You do not have the Fair Housing Act of 1968 without PNBC. Because when no other American denomination was willing to put this as a priority, as an article of faith, it was this convention that was born out of rebellion to Jim Crow democracy and James Crow economics.”

Rev. Willie Francois III speaks at the annual session of the Progressive National Baptist Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, on Aug. 9, 2023. (Brian Kaylor/Word&Way)

Francois, who co-chairs with Haynes the PNBC’s Social Justice Commission, highlighted that through its advocacy for justice, the PNBC provides a vision of what it means to be Christian.

“What a tragedy it is that so much of what it means to be a Christian has been co-opted by White Nationalists,” he said. “But there’s something about the rebellious imagination of folk like us, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, that says we have political priorities that aren’t limited to policing who people sleep with and policing what women do with their bodies. The Progressive National Baptist Convention is actually pro-life because we care about bodies before they are born all the way through the tomb. How important it is for us to be here to raise the stark contrast as to the White Christian Nationalism that tried to tear down the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6.”

“PNBC comes here today as a dramatization of that carpenter from Palestine who was policed by his own government and crucified by his own government, but demonstrated the power of resurrection that lets us understand that God’s power is bigger than injustice and God’s power is bigger than what an empire thinks it can do to non-White bodies,” Francois added.

This focus on faithful advocacy continues today. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., the PNBC has throughout the years pushed for voting rights and affirmative action, fought against South African apartheid, supported religious freedom for all, and advocated for healthcare reform. Last year, the PNBC announced it was reviving a 1960s partnership with the AFL-CIO labor union to mobilize voters amid efforts in several states to restrict voter access — an effort talked about during this year’s meeting by ministers and labor activists.

The PNBC today includes about 1.5 million members in more than 1,300 churches. The current president, Rev. David Peoples, assumed the role after the convention’s first international president died in 2021. Rev. Timothy Stewart, elected in 2018, had been a pastor in the Bahamas (where I interviewed him in 2019). Last year, the PNBC elected Rev. Jacqueline Thompson as second vice president, making her the first female officer of the convention.

The main sermon for the PNBC meeting came from Rev. Marvin McMickle, former president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, New York (a school affiliated with the American Baptist Churches USA with Martin Luther King Jr., Walter Rauschenbusch among its alumni). Although the theme passage for the meeting was the familiar Esther passage about “such a time as this,” McMickle flipped back to Esther 3.

“You have to know what the time is, what is the ‘such a time as this,’” he explained. “If you start with the ‘such a time as this,’ you’re going to miss why this is an important time.”

Esther 3 describes how Haman, a royal official in the Persian empire, got offended when Mordecai would not bow before him and thus devised a plot to kill all the Jews in the kingdom. That passage, McMickle said, explained why the more famous line in the next chapter matters because the question is not if tribulation will come but how people respond to it.

“God wants you to ask yourself, ‘What next?” McMickle explained. “Here is the truth about tribulation: there’s no way out, you just have to go through.”

Like with reading Esther 3 to understand Esther 4, McMickle argued that people today need to understand the past to respond to this current time.

“What song would you sing that would get you through the hardships that our enslaved ancestors had to endure?” he asked. “What would you sing about burdens that would extend every day into every week into every month into every year for 246 years? What would you sing if you got packed into the bottom of a slave ship and sailed across the ocean in the Middle Passage with 40% of the cargo dying before it arrives? What would you sing on your way to the whipping post? What would you sing if they were tying you up to the auction block? What song would you sing if the daughter that you love and the mother that you cherish and the woman that you wish could be your wife were snatched from you and sold away? What would you sing if you got sold to the highest bidder in Brazil or Barbados, in Jamaica or Cuba or Mexico, in Charleston or Savannah or Baltimore?”

“Now Ron DeSantis might think that they would sing songs of Thanksgiving: I’m so glad that I’ve learned usable skills that, to quote him, I can parlay into a future vocation. Maybe I can be a blacksmith when this is all over. As if they did not have skills when they got here,” McMickle said, referring to comments last month by the governor of Florida claiming that Blacks benefited from slavery. “Nobody saw slavery as a program for apprentices for skills development.”

Similarly, McMickle explained why the word “again” in the slogan “Make America Great Again” is problematic.

“I got no problem with the first three words — make America great. It’s the fourth word that gets stuck in my throat, caught in my craw, unrecognizable in my memory. When was the ‘again’?” he said. “Again when? Before women could vote again? When Black folk were still in chains? Then? When Native American reservations were being crowded with folks whose land had been stolen from them by one lying treaty after another? When is your ‘again’?”

Noting that some people point to the mid-1950s as that supposedly great time, McMickle recalled the events of 1955 when “a young man from my town” of Chicago went to Mississippi. That 14-year-old, Emmitt Till, was tortured, killed, and dumped in the river.

From left to right: Rev. Marvin McMickle, Second Vice President Rev. Jacqueline Thompson, and President Rev. David Peoples speak at the annual session of the Progressive National Baptist Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, on Aug. 9, 2023. (Brian Kaylor/Word&Way)

In a time like this, how should Christians respond? To answer that, McMickle told the story of a young man who went to visit Frederick Douglass shortly before the formerly enslaved abolitionist died. When the young man asked for advice about what to do with his life, Douglass responded. “Agitate. Agitate. Agitate.” Similarly, McMickle recalled comedian Dick Gregory saying that if you take the agitator out of a washing machine, at the end of the cycle you will just have wet, dirty clothes.

“Maybe that’s what’s wrong with the world: we’ve got preachers who have lost their agitator,” McMickle said. “You have got to agitate in this world to make a difference in this world.”

He added that this is needed today as there are “other religions” like Christian Nationalism that bring tribulations onto people.

“Folk believe that somehow America is God’s favorite nation. That God loves us more than God loves any other nation on earth. And that God prefers that White people be in charge and White males in particular,” McMickle said as he criticized Christian Nationalism. “That may be their religion; it’s not my religion.”

“And there are Hamans in the world right now where if you don’t bow down to them and do what they want you to do and act like they want you to act, they want to erase your history, take away your voting rights, strip you of your humanity, put you in some corner,” he added. “That may be their religion; it is not mine.”

Rev. David Peoples, PNBC’s president similarly promised they would keep pushing and agitating for justice.

“We won’t stop until what Dr. King said, until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” Peoples said. “We won’t stop until Florida Gov. DeSantis understands that slavery never benefited any African American.”

“We won’t stop until our people are no longer used for target practice. We won’t stop until we change our criminal justice system,” he added. “We won’t stop until he calls us home!”

As a public witness,

Brian Kaylor

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