Before the Civil War of 1861-1865, when most African-Americans still lived in the south, blacks and whites worshipped in the same Protestant churches. The churches had segregated “colored” sections, usually in the back of the church. When the war ended, whites rebelled against the notion of fully integrated churches, while blacks protested against the segregation that became endemic in the south within ten years after the war’s end. The major Protestant denominations, led by the Baptists, split along racial lines. The reasons for the split are long gone, but today nine out of ten African-American churchgoers attend black churches, mostly Baptist.
Through the tumultuous history of African-Americans since the Civil War, including migration to the north, racism, poverty, and the civil rights movement, the black church has played an important role in keeping communities together and moving for social change. Black churches have contributed many notable American religious and political leaders, the most well known being slain civil rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., familiar to all Americans for his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Some black churches specialize in “bible preaching” in which a skilled preacher will whip his followers into an enthusiastic religious frenzy. In these cases, members of the congregation often become quite vocal. Upbeat gospel music adds to the atmosphere.
The gospel music of the black church is one of the backbones of African-American music, which in turn is an indispensible part of America’s unique musical heritage.
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