Ford speaks on impact of Black History Month

Rev. Paul Robeson Ford is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church on Highland Avenue.

Ford speaks on impact of Black History Month
February 27
01:00 2020

As Black History Month comes to an end, we have the opportunity to reflect on the sacrifice, hope and stories of those who endured the struggle to enable us to make it to this point in 2020.  

Many people have a strong affinity for Black History Month, along with the trailblazers of the Civil Rights Movement. Rev. Paul Robeson Ford, senior pastor of First Baptist Church on Highland Avenue, sat down with The Chronicle to talk about the importance of Black History Month.

The Chronicle: From a pastoral perspective, what does Black History Month mean to you?

Ford: I believe Black History Month for the black community at large, but particularly for the black community of faith, is a time to really reflect on what I talk about in terms of salvation history and the history on how God has delivered us again and again from the many dangers. There are so many moments of glory that we have experienced over the course of our history just in this country, not to mention going back before many of our ancestors were brought here in chains.  

I spend most of Black History Month trying to zero in on some of the stories of our people, stories that we know well and in other cases, stories I may be introducing people to for the first time. Stories about moments where we saw people come together and the types of ways they choose to move that demonstrate the highest virtues of faith to which we’re called that have led to that success and been the backdrop to those moments of glory. Yesterday with our Friday noon service, was also the anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X. That’s a day to talk about some of the other moments outside of glory that we have experienced, but yet and still, the lasting legacy that a man like Malcolm has, whether we are Muslim or Christian, taught us how to be free black men and women and to move that way in pride, with boldness and a sense of truth.

Black History Month becomes an opportunity to make sure our people really are remaining conscious of the complexities of our history and the lesser known stories that need to be told. The fact of the matter is, we struggle now as a community because we lack some of the cohesiveness and shared common purpose that we had during the days when we were under the foot of segregation and oppression.  

Black History Month is the month that positions us to zero in on that in a way that other times of the year just may not facilitate as much and it’s also a time when the rest of the nation and society is being called upon to pay attention to us a little bit more as well. That becomes an opportunity that people are looking at the right things and it points to the lasting values and virtues that people should associate with our people.

The Chronicle: Is the black community as cohesive and together as they were during the Civil Rights Movement?

Ford: Kevin Cosby has talked about the five institutions that sustain black life. One of them is the black church, another one is the black family, another one is black media, another one is black business and the other is black schools. All of those institutions are struggling now, arguably more than ever before. Part of it is because of the unintended consequences integration played out. The reality is that during the days of segregation, while the levels of oppression were such a greater burden to carry than they are now, because of that reality the black community was generally all in one place. Black people of all class levels living together, exposed to each other, and that lended itself to a more tight-knit community.  

Integration, of course, presented this opportunity to move into the white world to take advantage of some of the opportunities that had only been available to whites, but it also meant our people started scattering and moving away. Sometimes for good reasons, seeking a better life, because the drug epidemic settled in and some of our neighborhoods went way down. By spreading out that way, it obviously weakens that solidarity and bond. One of the things that has settled in was the class consciousness and the decision to bond with people of similar class, rather than of similar community.  

I constantly tell my folks here, churches like this one, old institutional churches, have been at the center of the lift of the black community. This congregation, over its 141 years, literally runs parallel to much of the history of the black community in Winston and has moved as the community has moved. We started out where the black community was in downtown Winston; we moved over here basically when the black community was doing the same.

The Chronicle: Some say one of the big problems with African Americans is that since integration, black people have a sense of complacency and do not have that same drive as we did during the Civil Rights era. Do you agree with that?

Ford: I think there is a sector of our community that is comfortable for themselves, because they have made these shifts, so the sense of urgency gets diminished if you’re not still living in the community, or the side of town where you look out your door and the police cars are constantly flying by, or you look down the street and see police, because someone got shot.  

Then what has to happen is, there has to be a mindset and there has to be a set of what I call theological commitments, that even if I am now geographically or locationally distanced from the communities of need, which is disproportionately the communities from where I came from, or the people that look like me come from, I am going to go back and work for those communities. That requires another step, it’s the mission step. It’s the stretching yourself outside of your comfort zone and to go back into places where the need is great and where the challenges are many, but where I would argue the heart of God is.

The Chronicle: Do you feel the importance of Black History Month has been lost with the younger generation?

Ford: You will hear many people lament that our children are not being taught their history anymore. Most of my preaching here, focusing on pulling together biblical insights with the history of our people in an effort to always be uplifting, especially for our younger people to make sure what they are not getting in school or at home, they will get in the church.

I am going to always make it a point that the teaching of our history is weaved into everything we do here, and I think we need to try and do that elsewhere also. We cannot and should not rely upon the public-school system or other spaces to be doing the work for years we have done in our community institutions and spaces. We as black churches and black people have the responsibility to make sure our children know our story and know our history and they can take that out into the rest of the world.

The Chronicle: Was there a particular person that inspired you from the Civil Rights era?

Ford: As I said yesterday from the pulpit, much of the fire in my preaching and public witness was inspired by the legacy of Malcolm X. I tell people constantly, there is a big difference in the mindset that it leaves you with, to come from a city with a Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, you won’t have a hard time finding it in any community with a dozen black people. But I come from a city with a Malcolm X Boulevard and you will have a hard time finding those around this country.  

Malcolm X and his work permeated the consciousness of so much of the black community, not just in Harlem, but beyond. His death was so traumatizing, but his legacy has remained so strong and it impacted me directly just being in that city where he worked so much. But also, more indirectly in the impact he had on a whole generation on conscious Christian pastors in the black community who I was directly exposed to, like Jeremiah Wright Jr, James Forbes Jr. These were individuals who were a product of the challenge that some took on to try and deal with the contradiction that Malcolm X, above many others, pointed out between embracing a Christianity that had been hijacked by white supremacy with the history of black oppression and the problem with black people walking into black churches where every picture is a white Jesus.  

I am the generation of preachers that was taught by the preachers who first were trying to reconcile those tensions.

The Chronicle: In the time since the Civil Rights movement, do you feel the trailblazers of the Civil Rights era would be pleased at the progress we have made?

Ford: It’s a generational gap of how people will look at this question. I have a congregation of predominately older folks, many of whom are old enough to have lived through some portion of segregation and I think those who have that long view have seen how far we have come. I think it is a hard sell to suggest to folks like that, as you’ll hear some people say, things are just as bad now as they were back then. I think you have to be careful making those kinds of broad, generalized comments. What is true is that we are seeing a type of vitriol, a type of bigotry that is very reminiscent of days of old, because the white power structure in this country is on its last leg and knows it. It’s not inevitable, it’s a matter of time.

The election of Donald Trump is rightly understood as a white lash against the elevation of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States for two terms. He (Trump) has been described as our first white president, not because all the other presidents before Obama weren’t white, but that he ran on a just-beneath-the-surface, latent white nationalist identity, persona, profile and agenda.  

We’ve come a mighty long way, we have to go back to what King said on the night before he died, ‘I’ve been to the mountain top, I’ve looked over, I’ve seen the promise land. I may not get there with you, but we as a people will get to the promise land.’ I would say we are still wandering in the wilderness. I would say we have made progress, but I don’t know I would say we are there yet. There are still too many of our people that are disproportionately impoverished, it’s still play-booked that our communities are the ones subject to gentrification, we’re still dealing with mass incarceration, which is one of the last battles that has to be fought, and we have a long way to go. We have to get organized and united as much as possible in order to finish the work and finish the journey.

The Chronicle: Tell me about the process of vetting the candidates you chose to endorse for our local elections.

Ford: There are a couple of considerations and one of them is looking at the challenges facing our community and the need for bold leadership that will work to bring the community together, but will also speak in innovative, creative and entrepreneurial ways and move in such a way to be a key player in helping to pull the community together and move us forward in ways we need to go to reach and achieve greater equity. I have personal relationships with some of these individuals and that’s always a reality, particularly when you look at the situations where people have similar agendas.  

Second of all, it comes down to those personal relationships to see how people impress you in terms of that bold mindset. The people that I have chose to stand behind for those elections that cross the boundaries of this church are individuals that really demonstrate that passion, that bold leadership, and will move us in the direction that we need to go.

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Timothy Ramsey

Timothy Ramsey

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