Review: A Pursued Justice

Kevin Boland Johnson

Kevin Boland Johnson is Assistant Professor of History at Grambling State University.

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Kevin Boland Johnson, "Review: A Pursued Justice," Journal of Southern Religion (19) (2017):

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Kenyatta Gilbert. A Pursued Justice: Black Preaching from the Great Migration to Civil Rights. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016. ix +136 pp. +Appendix. ISBN 978-1481303989. 

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In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in Memphis supporting some 1,400 striking African American sanitation workers, delivering perhaps his most famous sermon. Acknowledging the despair and oppression afflicting black Americans, King predicted future events while offering a message of hope. Theologian Kenyatta Gilbert argues that King’s sermons “were offspring of earlier venerable prophetic Black preaching” (1). Specifically, Gilbert highlights the preaching of three northern itinerants and institution builders—Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., Florence Spearing Randolph, and Reverby Cassius Ransom—who addressed the needs of African American migrants fleeing the violently oppressive conditions in the South. King’s Progressive-Era influences, such as the ideas of Social Gospel proponent Walter Rauschenbuch and the ethics-based religious theories of Paul Tillich and Reinhold Neibuhr, are less prominent in Gilbert’s work than the Great Migration pastors. Gilbert shows that the pastors offered migrants assimilation and acculturation, which could provide a social safety net in the form of job programs and counseling as they sought a mythical “promised land” free from discrimination and oppression in northern industrial cities. Yet, it is the content of the sermons that highlight Gilbert’s second book.

A Pursued Justice: Black Preaching from the Great Migration to Civil Rights is a selectively researched attempt to mix ecclesial and social history. Gilbert builds his analysis on the words and legacy of three northern Great Migration preachers who offered “a biblically informed, contextually shaped mode of discourse” to black migrants (6). He argues that Powell, Randolph, and Ransom’s sermons employed four common tropes of “prophetic preaching” that connect these important speakers to King’s oratory during the civil rights movement. In other words, prophetic Great Migration sermons by King and his predecessors openly addressed systemic racism and oppression, simultaneously expressing hope in aesthetically pleasing oration. Gilbert sees these preachers as God’s instruments in carrying out divine plans for social justice (6, 68).

To make this argument, Gilbert must properly situate his study in the context of early and mid-twentieth century America. He might have created a study with a richer connection to the historiography of the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, and Black Freedom Struggle and better situated the historical context by engaging the primary or secondary sources. Moreover, A Pursued Justice misfires in a confusing theoretical chapter containing speculative biblical interpretations. Taking the reader back to the Old Testament, Gilbert struggles to make a connection between twentieth-century Americans and ancient Hebrew prophets. He claims, for example, that black Great Migration preachers “rose up in the spirit of the Hebrew prophet” (53).

Since Gilbert’s work is mostly a textual analysis of selected sermons from the early and mid-twentieth century, it will likely be valued more by religious scholars, divinity students, and seminary graduates. Historians of religion, however, may find the study too brief and conceptually underdeveloped. The study lacks clarification about the time period of the Great Migration; Gilbert suggests 1916 to 1940 without a complete explanation for these temporal parameters (2). Aside from an anecdote about one migrant’s account, the work emphasizes  Powell, Randolph and Ransom, including biographies in miniature. The most underdeveloped information in the study concerns Holiness preacher Florence Spearing Randolph—a female minister who thrived in religious institutions in the early twentieth century (27–30). Scholars seeking a detailed gender analysis of this, mostly untapped, instance of a dynamic black female negotiating a male-centric domain will be disappointed.

Gilbert transitions into the second chapter with the claim that the three Great Migration preachers enabled migrants “to maintain their dignity and humanity within dehumanizing political and socioeconomic conditions” (34). Instead of including supporting statistics and information about the effects on their hearers, Gilbert focuses on prophetic sermonizing. He describes a miasma of religious messages that met migrants in northern locations such as Detroit and Chicago and acknowledges social and political organizing common at the time. Yet, Gilbert fails to fully capture the religious experimentation fed by the steady stream of southern blacks reaching America’s industrial centers. Gilbert condemns experiential religious expression central to the Holiness and Pentecostal movement as “personality-driven cults,” instead of a dynamically new way to experience worship (48). He acknowledges some of the migrants’ alternative choices, including the Moorish Science Temple and the fledgling Nation of Islam. The work would have benefited from a better analysis of the religious atmosphere southern blacks faced once reaching the North. After all, the Nation of Islam sought to assist and likewise proselytize to new arrivals, and Elijah Muhammad, unlike Powell, Ransom, and Randolph, emphatically asserted the status of prophet. Since the context of this important religious experimentation remains absent from Gilbert’s analysis, along with his denunciations of Rauschenbusch’s version of the Social Gospel as “paternalism,” this historical work is too selective (40). The reader is left wondering what makes the rhetoric of Protestant preachers any more successful in reaching the multitudes than other modes of preaching.

In the final two chapters, Gilbert analyzes the prophetic nature of the sermons delivered by pastors Powell, Ransom, and Randolph. Instead of weaving in quoted statements, followed by analysis, Gilbert reproduces large excerpts, and whole sermons are included in the appendix. Gilbert’s major claim that Powell, Ransom, and Randolph “taught scores of people to actively practice hope and to seek spiritual and social salvation, politically, economically, and educationally” remains unsupported without including the voices of the migrants themselves (102). Moreover, given the statistical enormity of the Great Migration—1.5 million between 1916 and 1940—a critical reader will wonder whether the sermons of only three ministers constitutes a representative sample that could reach such masses (2). Similarly, Gilbert omits other southern-based pastors crucial to forging a civil rights revolution after the Second World War. Readers will wonder why the sermons of Martin Luther King, Sr., T.J. Jemison, E.D. Nixon, and James Lawson, to name a few, are not included in the author’s analysis.