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Groups Seek Reconciliation After a Four-Decade Rift

Baptists: Leaders of two prominent black denominations urge members to work together. They split after a delegate was killed in a convention dispute.

September 07, 2002|Religion News Service

PHILADELPHIA — Forty-two years after this city was the site of the start of their bitter split, leaders of two of the nation's most prominent black Baptist denominations shared a podium this week in an emotional and historic act of reconciliation.

The Rev. Major L. Jemison, new president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, gave the keynote address at a banquet during the annual session of the National Baptist Convention, USA.

Jemison urged delegates to the denomination from which his was formed to find ways to work with his group for the greater good of African Americans and the nation as a whole.

"More than any other time, we must plow this field together as conventions and as Christian people whose aim it is to build up the kingdom of God," said Jemison, an Oklahoma City pastor who rose to the rank of his denomination's presidency in August.

"I certainly believe that God has not fixed us so that the best has been.... It is clear to me that our unified effort is an idea whose time has come."

Many of the more than 1,400 attending the banquet credited the Rev. William J. Shaw, president of the National Baptist Convention, with having the vision to make the invitation to Jemison. But Shaw said the credit belonged to a higher authority.

"I think that the presence of Dr. Jemison here tonight is a matter of providence," said Shaw, a longtime pastor in Philadelphia, the city where he said a major break occurred in the denomination in 1960.

"I think that it is striking that ... 42 years later, the president of the Progressive Convention will address the National Baptist Convention, USA in the city where the seed of division was not only planted but watered and birthed, as it were, or flowered into another convention body."

After the Philadelphia meeting, a dispute about the denomination's leadership grew into a confrontation at a 1961 convention that left one delegate dead.

"After the convention in '61 in Kansas City, where an individual came to an untimely death in that struggle ... some of us left the convention brokenhearted and somewhat pessimistic about the future of the denomination in terms of convention leadership," the Rev. Otis Moss Jr. of Cleveland, a prominent Progressive National Baptist Convention pastor, said in a phone interview before the meeting.

Within a couple of months, the newer denomination had been formed.

The Rev. William Keaton, a Little Rock, Ark., pastor and National Baptist Convention member, contrasted the peacefulness of the 2002 meeting with the power struggles of the early 1960s, saying more recent leadership has made a difference.

"Just like in a family, if you have a disagreeable husband or a disagreeable wife, the children are going to reflect it," he said.

The Rev. E. Louise Sanders, an associate minister of a Philadelphia church affiliated with the National Baptist Convention whose father was a founder of the breakaway group, said the podium-sharing fulfilled Shaw's "dream of uniting the two conventions and forgetting the ill will from the past."

Those dates in the early 1960s are one of the marks on the timeline of black religious history that are reviewed in classes taught by professors like A.G. Miller, acting head of the religion department at Oberlin College in Ohio.

"Just to have representatives from one being invited by the other, I think, is a major move within the black Baptist community," said Miller in an interview before the meeting.

Citing the memberships of the National Baptist Convention and the smaller Progressive National Baptist Convention, Jemison said in his address that more could be accomplished if they work together.

"We have yet to realize the power of our strength as conventions," he said, drawing more applause.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to add up the numbers--8 million here, 2.5 million there. That's 10.5 million votes. We could shape a nation," he said.

"We could turn the world upside-down. We could do whatever we want if we rally around the common causes," he added.

In an interview after his speech, Jemison expanded on his hopes, saying he thinks the two groups could work in partnership on education issues and registration of African American voters.

Jemison and Shaw said in interviews that they would like their denominational leaders to hold a joint midwinter meeting in 2003.

Both credited longtime friendships across denominational boundaries and previous overtures with helping them reach the point where they, as presidents, could speak at the same annual meeting.

Jemison cited the Rev. Gardner Taylor, renowned as the "dean of African American preachers" and a past president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention who unsuccessfully sought the National Baptist Convention presidency in 1960 and 1961. Taylor spoke at last year's annual session of Shaw's denomination.

In a telephone interview this week, Taylor said he was thoroughly delighted about the improved relations between the groups.

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