The idea that churches must be involved in political struggles for justice and peace to be faithful to the Gospel is disputed in every generation. Those who affirm it are always a minority. Walter Rauschenbusch, the Baptist icon of the Social Gospel movement, refused for most of his career to employ the term “Social Gospel.” There is no legitimately Christian non-social Gospel, he protested; why should he concede otherwise by adding a redundant adjective? Rauschenbusch bowed to convention only near the end of his life, in 1917, when he lamented that a non-social Gospel was the norm; those, like him, who dissented from that norm had to wear a special name.
This issue played out very similarly in Black churches, despite all that was different in the founding and history of Black American churches. The Black Church was born liberationist, hearing a message of freedom and equality in the Gospel that was not what was preached to enslaved Black people. Black churches had to deal with the hostility and oppression of the dominant white society, lacking any choice in the matter. But even in Black churches, those who preached social-justice activism were always a minority, even in the heyday of the civil-rights movement.
The Black social gospel paved the way for the civil-rights movement by raising up a luminous line of prophetic spiritual leaders, providing the social-justice theology that the movement preached and sang. Today, the tradition of prophetic Black faith that called for a new abolitionism in the 1880s and fueled the civil-rights movement remains the moral epicenter of the social-justice movement in the United States. It sustains this standing on the strength of its unique capacity to elevate compelling spiritual leaders in every generation. Last October I wrote about one of them for Commonweal: U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock. United Church of Christ pastor Traci Blackmon, the subject of this article, and Disciples of Christ pastor William J. Barber II, the subject of my next article, stand out in a crowded field.
Blackmon grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1960s, integrating an exclusive private high school with her presence. From fourth grade to college she was the only Black student in the room; meanwhile, from fourth grade to seminary she didn’t have a single Black teacher. In her sophomore year of high school, she toured Ivy League schools; in her junior year the tour consisted of elite Southern schools. She applied to Princeton, Yale, Swarthmore, Duke, Emory, Vanderbilt, and Birmingham-Southern, and was admitted to all. A Harvard recruiter came to her school; Blackmon, feeling good about her record, thought why not—Harvard had not appealed to her during her sophomore tour, but why pass up the pitch?
Blackmon went to hear the recruiter, who told the crowd that Harvard was extremely selective, the odds of admission were terrible, but good luck. Blackmon felt nauseated, not planning to meet with the recruiter. But at the reception he headed straight for her. She listened with all the politeness she could muster as he told her not to worry about her grades. If she maintained a C average at this high school, she was sure to be admitted to Harvard. Blackmon was devastated. This guy knew nothing about her—nothing of her skills, achievements, awards, grades, or SAT scores. All he knew was that she was Black at an elite school, so she should ignore the admission speech. Blackmon absorbed that nothing she could ever achieve at Harvard would make this recruiter see her. Her race alone disqualified her from being a real Harvard student; she could only be a pretend one. She knew that Harvard didn’t deserve her, yet the episode stung her. Many years later she recalled: “The words of that arrogant, presumptuous recruiter wounded my heart but he did not shape my identity. Nothing about me is defined by that moment.” She passed up the other elite schools too, enrolling instead at nearby Birmingham-Southern College.
There she earned a bachelor of science degree in nursing in 1985 and embarked on a twenty-five-year career as a registered nurse. In her early nursing career, Blackmon focused on cardiac care; later, she focused on mobile health care in underserved communities. She developed a mobile faith-based outreach program called “Healthy Mind, Body, and Spirit” that changed health outcomes in impoverished areas. To Blackmon, health care was very much a ministry, but it also drew her into African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church ministry, which led her to seminary. For nine years she served in a variety of ministerial assignments in the AME Church, eventually studying at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, from which she graduated in 2009 with a master of divinity degree. That year, she transferred to the United Church of Christ (UCC) to facilitate her call as the first female pastor in the 159-year history of Christ the King UCC.