Civil Rights in Columbia

January 15, 2014

Opinion: MLK weekend good time to salute Lowcountry's black preachers

It is not by accident that the opening event of Hilton Head Island's Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Weekend is in a church.

It is not by accident that the opening event of Hilton Head Island's Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Weekend is in a church.

The first event is an ecumenical community service, set for 7 p.m. Thursday at Queen Chapel AME Church on Beach City Road.

One of the organizers and scheduled speakers, the Rev. Manuel Holland of the Unitarian church, believes that's how King would have wanted it.

It is no accident that the great civil rights leader rose from the church a gifted, third-generation preacher.

W.E.B. Dubois best captures the role of the church in his 1903 book, "The Souls of Black Folk":

"Various organizations meet here -- the church proper, the Sunday school, two or three insurance societies, women's societies, secret societies, and mass meetings of various kinds. Entertainments, suppers and lectures are held beside the five or six regular weekly religious services. Considerable sums of money are collected and expended here, employment is found for the idle, strangers are introduced, news is disseminated and charity distributed.

"At the same time this social, intellectual, and economic center is a religious center of great power. Depravity, Sin, Redemption, Heaven, Hell, and Damnation are preached twice a Sunday after the crops are laid by; and few indeed of the community have the hardihood to withstand conversion. Back of this more formal religion, the church often stands as a real conserver of morals, a strengthener of family life, and the final authority on what is Good and Right."

Dubois nails the special character it takes to lead such an institution.

"The preacher is the most unique personality developed by the Negro on American soil," he writes. "A leader, a politician, an orator, a 'boss,' an intriguer, an idealist -- all these he is, and ever, too, the center of a group of men, now 20, now 1,000 in number. The combination of a certain adroitness with deep-seated earnestness, of tact with consummate ability, gave him his preeminence, and helps him maintain it."

All of that while often working several jobs, raising a family, traveling from afar, being on call, studying and living under a microscope.

The Rev. Edward B. Alston, the host minister of the event at Queen Chapel AME Church, is a good example. He was reared in the rural Dale community in northern Beaufort County, graduated from Robert Smalls High School and Allen University, worked in the Burton Post Office, and has held a number of civil service jobs on the Beaufort Marine Corps bases. He is a retired master sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserves and has held a number of professional and civic leadership positions.

Other black preachers in Beaufort County answered the call after long careers, like Dr. Elijah Washington of Beaufort, who delivered hundreds of babies before retiring to deliver messages from a pulpit on St. Helena Island. Or the Rev. Isaac Wilborn, who led AME churches after retiring as principal of Hilton Head Elementary School.

As Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy is recounted, it would be appropriate to offer thanks to the less celebrated black preachers whose parishes fill the Lowcountry like the moss fills its trees.

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