01.22.09

Why Black Preachers Are Better

Forget Jeremiah Wright. Howell Raines on what Rev. Lowery and other African-American preachers have added this week to the Obama mystique.

Forget Jeremiah Wright. Howell Raines, author of My Soul Is Rested, on what Rev. Lowery and other African-American preachers have added this week to the Obama mystique.

As an apex moment in civil-right history, the inauguration ceremony for Barack Obama lifted the heart to a joyful breaking. Even so, there was a mystical note missing until they brought on the 87-year-old Rev. Dr. Joseph E. Lowery for the benediction.

As a veteran Movement preacher, Dr. Lowery approached the lectern with the tattered majesty of an old lion scarred by years of struggle in the thornbush. Then Joe Lowery did what I knew he was going to do. Words—and The Word—rolled out of him with an irrepressible force. Like his friend and colleague Martin Luther King, Jr., he brought the voice of the black pulpit to the Mall. Lowery, who I first encountered almost 40 years ago, reminded the nation by his word and presence that such preaching was one of the twin pillars of the battle against segregation, the other being the court challenges of Thurgood Marshall.

Video screenshot

Rev. Joseph Lowery's Benediction at Inauguration

President Obama called his dancing “old school,” but what Dr. Lowery delivered was the uplifting, wise, and sometimes playful, spoken music that emerged from the black America’s oldest, hardest school, that of slavery. As many historians have noted, the black church, as it emerged after Emancipation, was the first and sometimes the only institution wholly owned by the black community. The black preacher was often the only person in that community who could not be bought or silenced by the white authorities.

Both the tradition of that preaching and Dr. Lowery as its living embodiment are worth a close look. For without the black church, there is no Dr. King, and without Dr. King and his coterie, there would be no president named Obama.

I was surprised that Jon Stewart made fun of Rev. Lowery’s rhyming of “mellow/ yellow,” “red man/headman.” They didn’t seem to know that he was playing off the historic couplet about discrimination based on skin color.

As a Southern Protestant, I’ve know about lots of white preachers, and you can take all of them from Cotton Mather to Billy Graham, and there’s no match for what you could hear at any given service at an African-American church or civil rights rally in the Deep South in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The natural superiority of these preachers—organized by Dr. King into the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—proceeded from their social-gospel theology, not their skin color. The South’s white denominations heard sermons based on a crabbed, legalistic Calvinism: Don’t dance, don’t drink, don’t fornicate. The black church, seeing in Moses and Jesus parables about the trials of its people, emphasized redemptive suffering in pursuit of justice and mercy.

Dr. King’s particular genius was his recognition that once he moved the freedom debate in a religious direction, segregation would have to fall. He knew that white Southerners of that time were immune to many finer things, but powerful preaching was not one of them. That’s what the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” is about: reminding white people who had been relentlessly exposed to religion since the cradle that, deep in their hearts, they knew what Jesus would do about the charade of “separate but equal.”

From interviewing Dr. Lowery in 1975 for My Soul Is Rested, I knew that he, like Dr. King, was a student of homiletics, the scholarly study of sermons as vehicles of communication. (For Dr. Lowery’s learned discourse on the history of the black church, see that interview on page 66 of MSIR.) White America got a crash course in black homiletics in the “I Have a Dream” speech. It’s a style that blends every rhetorical trick in giving memorable and entertaining form to a serious message. It uses soaring King James language, theological exegisis, references to the sublime and ridiculous, humor, rhyme and doggerel, snatches of poetry and song. It includes show-off words alongside downhome vernacular.

As was often noted during his lifetime, Dr. King had a predilection for big words. It was more than a trick to make George Wallace look uneducated. It was part of a poetic arsenal that came as naturally to King’s oratory as it had to Lincoln’s. With King as with Lincoln, there was a playfulness. My favorite example in his Lincoln Memorial speech, is his reference to the “curvaceous slopes of California.” It hits the ear like a clunker, but then comes the most deadly description of Mississippi’s physical and moral topography ever coined: “Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.” It’s that tossed-in “molehill” that makes with literary elegance the point that a state “sweltering” in ignorant racism needed to be—and could be—redeemed down to every molecule of red dirt.

Video screenshot

Jesse Jackson Speech, Tendley Baptist, Philidelphia, PA: Jan 16, 1984

As for rhyme in public discourse, it was notably used but hardly invented by Muhammad Ali and the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. I was surprised that Jon Stewart and the usually sure-footed writers of the Daily Show made fun of Rev. Lowery’s rhyming of “mellow/ yellow,” “red man/headman” and so on in the closing lines of his inaugural prayer. They didn’t seem to know that he was playing off the historic couplet about discrimination based on skin color. “If you’re black, get back; if you’re brown stick around.”

Video screenshot

Ralph Abernathy Found Poem

Riffing this vernacular reference to skin color into a humorous and memorable closing for one of the most momentous events in American and African-American history was, to me, a signature work of artistry by Rev. Lowery. The comparison that comes to mind is Miles Davis taking a tired melody and investing it with the majesty of the blues.

For older black Americans who participated in the marches, there are other lighthearted echoes here that may have escaped the young writers at Comedy Central. One thinks of Dr. King’s main lieutenant, the late Rev. Ralph Abernathy” and his famously hilarious “do-hickey” sermon, addressed to a bugging device planted in a Selma church by Alabama police. Or the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, the lion of Birmingham, turning a sermon into a dictated “message for Bull Connor” to be delivered by the embarrassed white detective lurking at the back of the congregation, taking notes.

Video screenshot

Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth Recounts the Bombing of His Parsonage in 1956

I’m sure that President Obama, who we know to have been schooled by his mother in the literature of the civil rights movement, understood the many strands of meaning in his selection of Rev. Lowery to deliver the final, towering “Amen and Amen and Amen” to the congregation of two million in front of the Capitol. Rev. Lowery had direct links to all the mountain-top events of the movement. He took an offering from his Atlanta church to a first meeting with an almost boyish Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956. He was at the founding meeting of the SCLC in 1957 and struggled to keep the organization going after the assassination in Memphis in 1968. He was with Dr. King, too, when they sat down with a reluctant Governor Wallace in the Alabama Capitol after the Selma March in 1965. That is where he confronted Wallace, who was to spend his life in a wheelchair after being shot in 1972, with a stunningly prescient remark. “I said to him, ‘I am speaking to you as a Methodist preacher to a Methodists layman,’ which his is. ‘God has given you great gifts, great gifts of leadership, powers of persuasion, and He will call you to account on how you use them.”

That recollection touches on another tradition from the civil-rights days: the preacher as prophet. May all Joseph Lowery’s bright prayers for the Obama presidency come true.

Howell Raines is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the former executive editor of The New York Times. He is the author of several books, including My Soul Is Rested and Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis. He is a contributor to Conde Nast Portfolio.