Learning the History of the Civil Rights Movement

January 18, 2016

Bob Kellemen

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Bob Kellemen

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 2016, it would be instructive for all of us to ponder the historical predecessors who influenced Dr. King and the modern Civil Rights Movement.

Learning from the Founding Fathers of the Black Church

Historians of American history frequently emphasize our “founding fathers.” Politically speaking, they highlight white males like George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, and James Madison. Spiritually speaking, they feature white males such as Roger Williams, Cotton Mather, John Winthrop, Jonathan Edwards, and Isaac Backus.

Sadly, we have often left African American founding fathers missing in action. In particular, the spiritual founding fathers of independent African American church life have been neglected, relegated to the back seat of the historical bus. We should seek to recover something of the lost legacy of loving leadership bequeathed to us by African American spiritual forefathers. The Rev. Daniel Alexander Payne is one such forefather.

Walking the Talk

Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne was an early leader in and the official historian of the AMEC (African Methodist Episcopal Church). Payne experienced numerous opportunities to live out his Christian faith. His convictions for Christ remained strong into the twilight years of his life. When he was in his seventies, Payne refused to stay on a train where he would have been seated under Jim Crow conditions. Standing his ground and confronting the white authorities on the train, he said to them: “Before I dishonor my manhood by going into that car, stop your train and put me off.”

After Payne left the train, “the guilty conductor looked out and said, ‘Old man, you can get on the platform at the back of the car.’ I replied only by contemptuous silence.” Payne then carried his own luggage, walking a great distance over “a heavy bed of sand” to his next speaking engagement in the Deep South. Payne literally walked the talk.

He was the Rosa Parks of his day. In fact, Rosa Parks worshipped at an AME church. During youth Sunday school she learned the history of the AME Church, including the history of Daniel Alexander Payne. Thus, we can trace the Civil Rights Movement from Daniel Alexander Payne, to Rosa Parks, to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dare to Be a Daniel

How did such Christian conviction develop? Payne credits his father who started him on his purposeful life. “I was the child of many prayers. My father dedicated me to the service of God before I was born, declaring that if the Lord would give him a son that son should be consecrated to him, and named after the Prophet Daniel.”

Imagine the sense of self, the sense of biblical masculinity that Payne’s father passed to his son. He did so not only by naming, but also by modeling. Of his father, Payne testifies:

He was an earnest Christian and a class leader, having two classes under him—what used to be called the Seekers’ Class and the Members’ Class. He was a faithful observer of family worship; and often his morning prayers and hymns aroused me, breaking my infant sleep and slumbers.

So…we can trace the history of the modern Civil Rights Movement even further—from the prophet Daniel, to Daniel Alexander Payne’s father, to Daniel Alexander Payne, to Rosa Parks, and then to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

beyondthesufferingAnd now you know the rest of the story.

Note: This post is excerpted from my book, Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care. To learn more and to read a sample chapter visit Beyond the Suffering.

Join the Conversation

What impact could knowledge of an African American leader like the Rev. Daniel Alexander Payne have upon Americans? African Americans? African American males?

Why do you think that the history of African American leaders like the Rev. Daniel Alexander Payne is so infrequently highlighted? What could be done to reverse this pattern?

How might it help us to understand that the modern Civil Rights Movement can be traced all the way back to the Rev. Daniel Alexander Payne?