Rev. Traci Blackmon speaks to a crowd in St. Louis, Missouri, May 2019 (REUTERS/Alamy Stock Photo).

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.

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.

Christ the King was a large building in Florissant, Missouri, with a proud history and very few members. It was struggling to keep the lights on. It managed to pay the required income of a UCC pastor only because it had some longtime members living in wealthier neighborhoods who still made the drive to Florissant. Blackmon said this was not a sustainable model, or anything with which she could identify. If the congregation was going to survive, it had to become a church of its poor Black community, not a relic of its white past propped up by suburbanites. Blackmon developed neighborhood service programs that did not require church membership. The church grew modestly and she felt encouraged.


On August 9, 2014, Blackmon got a phone call from someone who told her that in Ferguson, three miles away, an unarmed eighteen-year-old Black man had been gunned down in the street by police and was lying prone on the pavement.

Michael Brown’s body lay uncovered on the street for four hours. His blood poured onto the pavement. Blackmon plunged into the explosion of grief, rage, trauma, and violence that erupted in Ferguson. She spoke to the moment, decrying the eagerness of white Americans to react hysterically to the presence of a teenage Black man. She stressed that many had been killed like Brown. Two more—Ezell Ford and Kajieme Powell—were killed shortly afterward only a few miles from the site of Brown’s death.

Why did Ferguson spark a historic eruption? Blackmon believed it was Brown’s blood oozing for hours on the street, making a statement about the value that America places on Black life. She said Brown’s blood exposed the eagerness of white Americans to regard a Black teenager as an “other” to be feared. His blood displayed “the pervasive assumption of guilt that is the black man’s burden in America.” It cried out against the racism that criminalizes and dehumanizes Black bodies. It unveiled the chasm “that exists between a disenfranchised young generation and a disconnected church.” It showed how race, poverty, and hopelessness intersect on American streets. It provided “needed commentary on the self-mutilating, self-annihilating behaviors that have infected our communities of color.” Above all, Blackmon said, the blood of Michael Brown exposed the insidious effects of racism “that are intrinsic to the very fiber of our nation’s being.”

Blackmon was a beacon during a period when many clergy fretted about the hard things that Black Lives Matter said about church leaders. To her, there was no question about showing up and bearing witness. She was going to do it, and who she was had been settled long ago. She said she had never known the Gospel outside of justice work. Justice work is essential to the Gospel, so showing up at Ferguson was part of her ministry, not something extra. She found that being a UCC pastor was a huge advantage in the Ferguson moment. Blackmon called pastors across the entire gamut of local Christian and religious communities. It occurred to her that two hundred pastors from many different denominations would make a greater impact than two hundred members of a big downtown congregation.

At the first such gathering at Christ the King Church, the first thing Blackmon did was ask the clergy to stand. The sanctuary was packed with them. Blackmon reflected that only her scrappy, small, liberal congregation and denomination could have convened this diverse crowd of white mainline Protestants, Black mainline Protestants, Black and Hispanic Pentecostals and Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, gay and gender-nonconforming congregations, white Pentecostals and Evangelicals, Unitarian Universalists, and others. It was the small, open, and affirming UCC that made these disparate groups feel welcome and safe.

Justice work is essential to the Gospel, so showing up at Ferguson was part of her ministry, not something extra.

Her speaking calendar exploded. The UCC was thrilled to be associated with Blackmon, and President Obama appointed her to the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-based Neighborhood Partnerships for the White House. Blackmon said the UCC is made for fights—fighting for justice, love, compassion, and equality. Her high position in the quintessential liberal denomination and her support of its liberal views on sexuality earned her a tag she hated—“progressive Christian.” Sometimes she ripped it off just after being introduced: “One of my pet peeves is when people describe me or others that I work with as being left, or being progressive, or being liberal. I don’t preach a progressive Gospel. I preach the Gospel. The Gospel is progressive. The Gospel is a social Gospel. The gospel is a liberating Gospel. And if, when you preach it, it does not do those things, it is not the Gospel.”


Donald Trump won the White House, and Blackmon shuddered at church audiences that just wanted to talk about Trump, Trump, Trump. Yes, some things must be said about Trump, she said. But the most important thing is that his presidency did not come from nowhere. Trump is a product of four hundred years of racism and a half-century of cunningly racist politics geared to destroy the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

On August 11 and 12, 2017, neo-Nazis and white nationalists staged a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, beginning with a march through the campus of the University of Virginia. Local and visiting clergy held a counter-protest worship service at St. Paul’s Memorial Church, across the street from the university rotunda. Blackmon preached a barnburner of a sermon to an overflowing, high-spirited crowd. Three hundred white supremacists, marching two by two, approached the church with torches, chanting, “Jews will not replace us! Blood and soil! You will not replace us! White lives matter!” There were flyers calling for a race war and flyers declaring that the white nationalists had come to take back their country. No one knew if the mob would invade the sanctuary, where the crowd sheltered in place, fearing the worst, until the mob finally returned to Nameless Field. Blackmon, on MSNBC, replied to the chants: “Are you kidding me? And this president wants to talk about revising history? Read some history. Black people built this country.” From Charlottesville, she traveled to a small evangelical college in Nebraska, not realizing that she was traumatized. Blackmon discovered this only when she found herself demanding to be moved to a hotel containing at least one or two Black people. She couldn’t stay in her room or go to sleep surrounded only by white people.

Often she spoke and marched alongside William J. Barber II. Every week on the road, someone chastised Blackmon, instructing her that the church should not be involved in politics. Sometimes, they opined that her approach to her job crossed the line. She replied that the line was real to her; she didn’t want the church to take positions on how people should vote. But the teaching of Jesus is quite specifically political, she argued. An apolitical Jesus is a fantasy or some kind of cover-up. When faced with a choice between Jesus and any American convention, she took Jesus every time. On the road, when teamed up with Barber, she has to say it differently if Barber gets the question first, because Barber has the same answer.

Blackmon contrasts the light of Epiphany that shines in the darkness and compels all persons forward in love with the fear-mongering hatred that erupted on Epiphany 2020—January 6. She watched in “horror and disbelief,” she recalls, as insurrectionist vigilantes stormed the gates of the Capitol, scaled walls, built gallows, and inflicted injuries and deaths, trying to thwart the peaceful transition of power, all of it spurred on by Trump’s “inflammatory lies” and the many public figures who endorse them. The vigilantes are gaining, she warns. Nineteen states have passed thirty-four laws restricting voting rights. On the other hand, twenty-five states have enacted fifty-four laws that expand voting access. January 6, 2020, was atrocious, to be sure, but on January 6, 2022, tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators gathered across the nation in more than 350 vigils.

Blackmon urges rally crowds and sanctuary gatherings to reject the current flood of legislation to ban books and teaching on America’s racial history: “It is the not seeing things through the lens of race that makes privilege invisible to whites.” “If we remain silent at a time such as this,” she says, “deliverance will arise from some other place but we, my friends, will be lost. Jesus stands at the door of everyone, and knocks, and hopes to gain entrance but also requires that we change, that we repent, that we do better.” Everything, she says, that has tried to kill her has failed, because love never dies: “Redemption is possible when we live out love. Let us learn from the tragedies of our past and move toward the light within each of us fueled by the everlasting power of love.”

Gary Dorrien teaches at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University. His many books include his first volume on the Black social-gospel tradition, The New Abolition, which won the Grawemeyer Award; and his second volume, Breaking White Supremacy, which won the American Library Association Award. This article is based on volume three, A Darkly Radiant Vision, to be published in 2023 by Yale University Press.

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Published in the May 2023 issue: View Contents
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