In Black Prophets of Justice, David E. Swift examines the interlocking careers and influence of six black clergymen, two of them fugitive slaves, who lived in the antebellum North and protested the racism of the time. Samuel Cornish, Theodore Wright, Charles Ray, Henry Highland Garnet, Amos Beman, and James Pennington had much in common: all were noted for their education and eloquence, all were ministers of the earliest black Presbyterian and Congregational churches, and all were activists toward social change.
Preachers as well as activists, these men fought, Swift argues, for the melding of religious life and social protest that informed their own lives. As leaders of the black congregations in the primarily white Presbyterian and Congregational denominations, they bore witness to the power of God and the essential oneness and worth of all human beings. As activists, they embraced a wide variety of issues—including abolitionism, education, fugitive classes, and the civil and political rights—that greatly affected the lives of Afro-Americans. As editors of the first black newspapers, they unmasked the racism implicit in the movement to colonize freed slaves outside of the United States and in the segregation of black worshipers in white churches. They organized vigilance committees to help escaped slaves, and they held conventions of free blacks in New York and Connecticut that aimed to win rights for blacks through legislation. By teaching Afro-Americans about the glories of their African past and the achievements of more recent individuals of African descent, these leaders grappled with the pernicious heritage of blacks’ self-doubt caused by generations of enslavement and white insistence on black inferiority.
While they opened the eyes of some influential whites, these activists effected little change in the attitudes and practices of white Americans in their own time. But their contribution to the advancement of the black cause, argues Swift, was substantial. They fed black aspiration, sharpened black discontent, and harnessed both to the creation of new black institutions. Indeed, they laid the foundation for such twentieth-century movements as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Black Prophets of Justice is a biography of six widely respected clergymen as well as an important discussion of Afro-American activism in the North before the Civil War. Well-researched and well-written, it will be of interest to American church historians, and to all those concerned with Afro-American history or with the social impact of religion in America.
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