On Easter Sunday, Rev. Dr. Gardner C. Taylor celebrated the resurrection in church, then later that afternoon joined Jesus in Heaven after 96 years of working in the vineyard on Earth to spread Jesus’ message of love and justice. He died in my state, North Carolina, having lived here during the last years of his life. When I became President of the North Carolina NAACP, Rev. Dr. Taylor preached at our religious emphasis service. In the 1980s, he preached a sermon, ‘I am Not Ashamed’, that transformed my faith perspective. And a few years ago, in the midst of our struggle and movement, he sent a written note that said simply ‘Stand up for Jesus and Justice’, with a $100 contribution.
The grandson of slaves, Rev. Dr. Taylor was born on June 18, 1918, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His father was a Baptist preacher; his mother, a teacher. As a young man, like me, perhaps in reaction to his preacher father, Rev. Dr. Taylor wanted to become a lawyer. For him, that was a more difficult undertaking, since no African American had been admitted to the Louisiana bar at the time. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Leland College in Louisiana, and then went to Oberlin College in Ohio, where he earned a divinity degree in 1940. He was called to lead several Baptist churches in Ohio and Louisiana but he settled down in 1948, at Brooklyn’s famous Concord Baptist Church of Christ, for the next 42 years. He built Concord into one of the largest churches in New York City. He was the second African American to serve on the New York City Board of Education, and the NBC radio network began broadcasting his sermons in the 1950s, where the content of his messages and the rhythms and commitment of his voice influenced generations of preachers from diverse backgrounds for two generations. His sermons are available online, and if you love good preaching, you can easily access them.
Rev. Dr. Taylor was about ten years older than his friend, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They worked as a team in the turbulent decades after World War II—the 1950s and the 1960s—until Dr. King was murdered in Memphis on April 4th, 1968. In 1960, the two relatively young preachers, along with some other Baptist ministers who had joined the dangerous Civil Rights Movement, challenged their brethren in the National Baptist Convention to get out of their pulpits and pews, and preach the good news to the poor in the neighborhoods, schools, fields and jails of the south. They argued that this powerful Convention could be a fulcrum for justice in the critical period of the early 1960s. The leader of the National Baptist Convention, USA, was Rev. Joseph Jackson from Chicago. He had supported the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, but he was not as supportive of the Movement as things began to heat up. Freedom Riders were getting beaten. Buses were burned. Homes were dynamited. The commitment to non-violence was difficult for some, particularly from the North. For whatever reasons, the non-violent direct action approach to Christian ministry that Dr. King and Rev. Dr. Taylor believed in was never able to get the strong backing of their own convention.
But they moved forward.
As Christian ministers, Dr. King, Rev. Dr. Taylor, and those of us who attempt to follow their interpretation of the Gospel today believe that we must help the poor, the sick, and the elderly. As Rev. Dr. Taylor bluntly put it in 1995, “I think evangelicals need a social conscience about the people who are least defended and most vulnerable in the society. If Christianity is not that, forget about it.” A few years later, he said he had decided the Bible was a “document for the outcast.” He believed that “Only an oppressed people can more easily grasp” its teachings.
Taylor’s theoretical work about the life and death matters of the Bible, its prophets, and Jesus, serves as inspiration to all of us who tried to meet the commands of the Bible to serve the least of these and to daily challenge the structures of injustice so deeply entrenched in the South.
I write this note while studying in New York City. Last week I was at a small church in Brooklyn, enjoying one of my students preaching the gospel. The wheel of Justice keeps turning. I recalled then that Rev. Dr. Taylor pastored at Concord Baptist in Brooklyn for 42 years. But he never forgot his southern roots, and the brutal, vicious system of Jim Crow. He showed his early support for our movement with his address at the first Religious Emphasis service of my tenure as president of the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP. His understanding of the South was the secret to his methods of fighting with words, with actions, and with grace. Rest my brother and teacher, and brother and teacher to so many others. We have already picked up your baton. We will carry on.