National Baptists Revise Social Agenda, But Leadership Issues Remain
Sep. 08, 1990
LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Thirty years ago, bedlam broke out at the National Baptist convention in Philadelphia, forcing the denomination into a leadership battle that led to the last major split in black Baptist history.
The 110th annual meeting of the National Baptist Convention U.S.A. Inc. that wraps up with a worship service Sunday has been a kinder, gentler affair, buit some say similar issues remain.
The denomination raised $1 million to reduce the mortgage on its first headquarters, the $10 million World Baptist Center in Nashville, Tenn., and delegates unanimously approved a resolution urging the government to keep U.S. troops out of combat in the Persian Gulf.
''The most significant thing, I think, has been the general spirit of the convention. There has been more fellowship, more spirit, than ever,'' said the Rev. T.J. Jemison, convention president.
Others say issues that led to the crisis in 1960, including perceptions of a president unwilling to share power, are rising again.
The battle in the 1960 convention was over power. The Rev. Joseph H. Jackson, who ousted Jemison's father, the Rev. D.V. Jemison, from the presidency in 1953, consolidated his own power and ignored tenure requirements.
In 1960, civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy wanted the nation's largest black church to become a force for social change.
That led to a large group of Baptists to support for president a civil rights candidate, the Rev. Gardner C. Taylor. Rival groups paraded throughout the convention, each side trying to drown out the other.
''It was extremely painful for me,'' recalled the Rev. Arlene H. Churn, who was a teen-ager at the 1960 convention. ''I can remember curtains being torn down from the convention hall, chairs being overturned, altercations.''
After Taylor won a disputed election, the issue of who controlled the convention went to the federal courts, which ruled they did not have jurisdiction in an ecclesiastical dispute.
The stage was set for the fateful break at the Kansas City convention in 1961.
In that convention, said historian Taylor Branch, masses of preachers supporting either Taylor or Jackson collided like a giant rugby scrum, shoving, slugging and wrestling each other out of the way to take control of the convention. In the melee, the Rev. A.G. Wright of Detroit was killed when he fell off the platform.
Jackson won the battle. Many opposition preachers left to form the Progressive National Baptist Convention. Jackson was to rule the National Baptist Convention until 1982 when he was ousted and Jemison took over.
The Jemison administration held promise for many of a more aggressive social agenda, and a more collegial power-sharing within the denomination.
In 1984, the convention voted to begin limiting the presidency to two five- year terms.
Most people agree that Jemison, who led the Baton Rouge, La., boycott of segregated busing in 1953, has been more socially active.
In his presidential address this year, Jemison decried what he said was the deterioration of race relations in the nation, charging that former President Reagan gave respectability to racism and referring to conservatives on the Supreme Court as ''strict segregationists.''
Jemison also is credited with being the driving force behind the Baptist center dedicated in 1989 in Nashville. He called the denominational headquarters, the first of its kind for a black church body, ''our Vatican.''
The Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson, convention general secretary, said the center, which is designed to address social issues such as AIDS, homelessness and other denominational programs, is ''a sign of hope to National Baptists.''
But some others say the building reflects a denomination more concerned with elaborate structures than social needs.
''This really saddens me to see $10 million in the glorification of a center versus all the nation crying out for help,'' Delegate Al Lipscomb of Dallas said.
While some ministers say Jemison has shown some signs of greater collegiality, including appointing more younger members to positions of prominence than his predecessor, others say there is concern throughout the church about the issue of sharing authority.
''The leadership of the president has been a strong leadership,'' the Rev. Paul Thompson of New Hope Baptist Church in Buffalo, N.Y., said. ''There is concern about trying to share that leadership more.''
The real test is expected in 1994, when Jemison would be obliged by the tenure rules he helped institute to step down from the presidency. Jemison has refused to say whether he would seek the presidency again in 1994.
''That's too far away,'' he said Friday.