Black history is a history of prayer.
Beginning in the woods and marshes on the edges of plantations across the deep south, enslaved Black Americans secretly gathered in worship, free from the censorship of white slave owners. Anti–literacy laws made Scripture readings rare. Singing was also limited because it risked discovery. As a result, these underground Christian gatherings beneath the stars were devoted to the only thing Black Americans could do–
Prayers of the Antebellum
Though little is recorded of these underground prayer meetings, there are records of prayer events in the antebellum era. Like in 1813, when enslaved and free Black worshipers in Wilmington, Delaware defiantly gathered on French Street to publicly pray for freedom. Or in 1857, when Black and White Christians gathered to pray in Charleston, South Carolina, giving rise to a revival where more than 2,000 diverse people joined together daily for 8 weeks to cry out to God for freedom. Over time, prayers for the end of slavery could be heard from the wooden pews of Quaker meeting houses to the canvas tents of the Second Great Awakening, raising national tensions and speeding the country towards a Civil War.
The events of the Civil War cannot be told apart from the prayers of Black history makers who made it all possible.
Prayers of the Civil Rights
Prayer continued to define Black history in the Jim Crow era, because although emancipation had come, integration and equality had not. After being segregated from white congregations, Black Americans built thousands of new churches so they could continue to worship and pray. Inexorably, after every lynching, every riot, and every devious act of prejudice, Black history makers gathered to pray familiar prayers for freedom in their new churches. In doing so, the next generation of Black history makers learned to pray by watching their grandparents cry out to God with the same fervor they had prayed during slavery.
But as much as the Civil War generation prayed in private, the Civil Rights generation prayed so that the whole world could see.
During the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, Congressman Adam Powell organized a National Deliverance Day of Prayer, bringing together 5,000 people in Manhattan and over 28,000 in Chicago to pray for the efforts in Montgomery. Soon after, Dr. King and the SCLC organized a Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, and 25,000 people crossed the country to gather in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial to pray that God would give them the ballot. In 1963, 4,000 Black Christians endured a cold Easter morning to kneel in prayer before armed police on the streets of Birmingham, Alabama.
But for every large-scale prayer event, there were hundreds of smaller, but equally dramatic, public prayers. Like students in McComb, Mississippi who methodically lined up in single file to kneel in prayer on the steps of city hall before being immediately arrested. Or the 600 people who knelt in prayer with Dr. King on the Edmund Pettis bridge outside of Selma, Alabama. Or the 50 people who knelt in the rain to pray outside of the jailhouse that held Dr. King in Bessemer, Alabama.
Like the Civil War, the events of the Civil Rights era cannot be told apart from the prayers of Black history makers that made it all possible.
Prayers of the 21st Century
This month, celebrate Black History by letting history repeat itself within you.
No matter your ethnicity, find a Black congregation in your community and worship with them this month. Either in person, or virtually. But do so with the intent to pray with them and add your voice to the centuries of prayers before you.
If Black history teaches us anything, it’s that tomorrow’s headlines will be written by today’s prayers of Black history makers.
Chris Paavola is a church planter and pastor in University City, a community inside the innerbelt of metro St. Louis, MO. You can follow him on Twitter at @chris_paavola.