The Activism of Interpretation: Black Pastors and Public Life

by Kirk Byron Jones

Kirk Byron Jones is pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Chester, Pennsylvania.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, September 13-20, 1989, p. 817. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Black preachers are socially bilingual. Their ability to communicate across racial lines and the cultural expectation that they do so has given them social and political clout disproportionate to their numbers.

The roots of black preachers’ prerogative and power are in the soils of African religion and American racism. The African reality of a wholistic as opposed to a secular and a sacred life, the place of the black church as sole as well as "soul" refuge during slavery, and the gift of oratory made the preacher the symbolic head and heart of his people.

To understand the black preachers’ lofty status among their own people and how they nurtured authentic participation with the majority on matters of public interest, one must understand how the black preacher has played the role of double agent or dual interpreter. Simply put, black preachers are socially bilingual. Their ability to communicate across racial lines and the cultural expectation that they do so has given them social and political clout disproportionate to their numbers.

One can get a sense of the black pastor’s role by surveying the activities of a black urban pastor like the late J. Pius Barbour. Barbour, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Chester, Pennsylvania, from 1933 to 1974 and mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr., during the latter’s Crozer Seminary years, amassed such influence over the years that it is said no decision affecting blacks in Chester was made without his input. Former congregations still speak with pride of "Doc’s" familiarity with the neighborhood people and his influence with officeholders "downtown."

During his 41 years at Calvary Baptist, Barbour served on a variety of city policy-developing committees, including the Chester Water Board and the Citizens Council on Urban Renewal. Barbour reportedly acquired his first paid political appointment by stalking into the board’s offices and reminding those in power how many votes Calvary Baptist Church had. That threat notwithstanding, the evidence points to Barbour’s having received his appointments, in large measure, due to his affinity with white concerns.

Barbour, who was the first black graduate of predominantly white Crozer Seminary, knew the white mind-set and spoke the white dialect. His knowledge of the ways and means of the majority qualified him to develop public policy and, more important, to communicate such policy to blacks on behalf of the city fathers and mothers and to help ensure a favorable response from the black community. That Barbour could be trusted is evident in his several editorials in the Chester Times on behalf of and sometimes in defense of whites:

Should we expect white preachers to get kicked out of their churches, while we enjoy ourselves?. . . I think I am behind in my NAACP dues myself. Now if I don’t even keep up with my dues I certainly don’t expect my white associate to lose his church about the matter. The white preacher is carrying the brunt of the battle and we should tell the story to America.

We are trying to keep the lines of communication open between the white power structure and the Negro community. The white community looks upon the Negro as a clown and criminal and the Negro community looks upon the white community as a community of "Wallaces and Barnetts." The responsible leaders of both groups are slowly destroying these stereotypes.

If I am supposed to vote for a black politician just because of his color, regardless of his ability, why should not the white man do the same?

What was most significant about these articles was not so much what Barbour said, but that he regularly conveyed the sentiments of the majority in Chester.

This ironic arrangement, in which the black preacher represented the white community, had its roots in the slave master’s use of slave preachers to deliver sermons espousing otherworldly realities. As time went on, the black preacher became the white man’s telephone to the black community -- in the words of Charles Hamilton in The Black Preacher in America, "the natural, most convenient tunnel."

At the same time, black preachers served as a bridge between blacks and the white world. Says Hamilton: "Blacks would, more frequently than not, turn to their ministers to intercede for them with the white establishment. He was the most sought-after person as a character witness in court for one of his parishioners." Barbour’s role as "witness" for the black community is evident in the number of jobs acquired and jail sentences ended through his direct or indirect intervention. Moreover, stories abound of Barbour’s simultaneous public conservatism and private advocacy. Calvary Baptist deacon and businessman Herman Dawson recalls: "During the ‘60s he didn’t march with us, but we knew he was with us. We’d go to his home and talk for hours about strategy. He would tell us what to expect and how to react." Dawson is the subject of an editorial in which Barbour "explains" black actions:

While we were deliberating on how to head off a bloody race riot a group of youngsters burst in on us and announced: "The State Police are shooting our people." We immediately dispatched Dr. Felder Rouse and Herman Dawson to get the information and head off any violence. While we were waiting to hear from them our "private FBI" burst into the conference with the information that a certain man of the Chester police had cracked Herman’s skull!

Barbour wished to relay the message to whites that black city leaders were not abdicating responsibility: they had made a serious though futile effort to avoid a riot. Barbour was being a priestly-prophetic press agent for the black community.

Barbour’s effectiveness in this work of interpretation was largely due to the manner in which he balanced his commitment to both the black and white communities. If there is a fault to find in his interpretive work, it is, I suspect, in the area of ultimate allegiance and ultimate truth.

There is a sense in which being available to speak for everyone taints one’s ability to speak for anyone, particularly the transcendent God of the universe. It is tempting to speak for the group that offers the best reward. Such an approach almost always leaves out the thankless task of speaking the purely prophetic word -- not because it is well received by blacks or whites but because it is the word of God.

Confusion about ultimate allegiance clouds the legacy of Barbour and his black pastoral peers. Were they little more than pawns under the control of white manipulators? Consider this indictment of black preachers by Black Muslims (recorded in C. Eric Lincoln’s Black Muslims in America) :

The black Christian preacher is the white man’s most effective tool for keeping the so-called Negroes pacified and controlled, for he tells convincing lies against nature as well as against God. The black preacher has taught his people to stand still and turn the other cheek. He urges them to fight on foreign battlefields to save the white man from his enemies; but once home again, they must patiently present themselves to be murdered by those they have saved. Thus, in an unholy and unnatural way, the "Negro clergy class is the white man’s right hand over the so-called Negroes," and the black preacher is the greatest hindrance to their progress and equality.

The question of allegiance is a pressing one for the Jesse Jacksons of the black church who must decide who they ultimately represent: the black community, a coalition of ethnic groups, the Democratic Party or a sense of moral right in the universe. More specifically, which one of these honorable constituencies is their regulating ideal?

The second sensitive spot in the black pastor’s work of interpretation is the question of truth. Shouldn’t black pastors be more than ecclesiastical messengers between minority and majority races? Howard Thurman identifies this struggle in his autobiographical treatise With Head and Heart:

My study at Haverford was a crucial experience, a watershed from which flowed much of the thought and endeavor to which I was to commit the rest of my working life. These months defined my deepest religious urges.. . . During the entire time with Rufus [Jones], issues of racial conflict never arose, for the fact of racial differences was never dealt with at the conscience level. The ethical emphasis in his interpretations of mystical religion dealt primarily with war and peace, the poverty and hunger of whole populations, and the issues arising from the conflict between nations . . . the specific issues of race with which I had been confronted all my life as a black man in America seemed strangely irrelevant. I felt that somehow he transcended race; I did so, too, temporarily.

Thurman’s ecstatic assessment suggests that historically, practically and pastorally, the activism of interpretation is always incomplete and something of an interim strategy. The spiritual mentoring task by its very nature transcends racial and cultural expectations and restrictions. Only a grasp of the transcendent "higher calling" of religious experience will make the sons and daughters of Barbour relevant interpreters and, even more important for the living of our days, inspired prophets -- transformers of public policy.

To suggest that King, Barbour’s former student minister, is a model of the preacher as transformer as well as interpreter will come as no surprise. The differences between both roles is -- to borrow a Kingism -- the difference between a thermostat and a thermometer. One sets, while the other merely gauges. Nowhere is King’s transcendence of the purely interpretive and communicative more clear than in his pre-popular indictments of the Vietnam war. Both blacks and whites were offended by this prophetic pronouncement that was unauthorized by either race. In those uncomfortable, unfavorable moments, King was more than a leader empowered by multiracial awareness and credibility; he was a messenger of God.