ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. >> The Black Lives Matter movement, which calls attention to the violent deaths of young black men, has become the largest social-justice effort among American blacks since the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. And, as in the 1960s, clergy are playing a critical role.
That includes members of South Jersey’s religious community, some of whom have taken up the sometimes-controversial cause in the pulpit and beyond.
The Rev. William M. Williams III, of Asbury United Methodist Church in Atlantic City, sees the history behind the movement.
“Black Lives Matter is a new name but the same movement throughout history and throughout the African people’s existence,” he told The Press of Atlantic City (http://bit.ly/1Sqirrk ).
Williams said black Americans have made a great deal of progress, but the struggle for equal treatment continues.
“There is a lot more that can be done, and we want to play a part in being part of the solution.”
Williams is part of a new initiative called “Black Lives Matter: Beyond The Slogan,” which has organized a series of free monthly forums to bring people together across lines of age, economic and educational levels, race and religion to learn and listen to each other.
The next forum is scheduled for Dec. 19 at Asbury United Methodist Church.
The group includes the Rev. Cynthia Cain, interim minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Jersey Shore in Galloway Township, and the Rev. Dr. William Blake Spencer, pastor of Ocean Heights Presbyterian Church in Egg Harbor Township.
The phrase Black Lives Matter arose in 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida.
At first it was just a hashtag on social media. But Black Lives Matter is now a chapter-based, national organization, known for its rallies.
The movement became bigger after the deaths of other black men in the past year and a half — this time at the hands of police — including Eric Garner in New York City, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore. The chant was heard in Minneapolis a week ago after Jamar Clark was shot by officers there. On Monday, five protesters were shot at a Black Lives Matter rally in that city. Three white men have been arrested in connection with those shootings.
Black Lives Matter has expanded its interests to include black poverty, the prison system and black undocumented immigrants. Activists from the group have interrupted speeches by Democratic and Republican presidential candidates.
But almost immediately after the hashtag was first used, a backlash came from people who see the phrase as an attack on police or a denigration of non-black lives. They respond to the phrase with the counter slogan “All Lives Matter.”
For supporters of the original message, these objections miss the point.
“We’re not saying that all lives don’t matter. We’re not saying police lives don’t matter,” said Williams, 35. “Black people are dying in a very systematic way. If the systematic destruction of black people continues to happen, then that’s going to devastate — that’s going to devastate our humanity.”
Cain, 60, has preached about the Black Lives Matter movement, and this led to the formation of an anti-racism task force at her church. The congregation put a Black Lives Matter sign in front of the building. The sign was defaced, but it has since been restored.
“We say Black Lives Matter. Well, saying that means we must act on that,” Cain said. “If they matter, then all these other things matter. Health matters. Housing matters. All things matter, and we need to be out there talking about and trying to do something about it.”
Rather than preach about the interaction of police and minorities and criminal justice reform, the Rev. Collins A. Days Sr., 55, finds dealing with these issues works better in a workshop. In those settings, there can be interaction, as opposed to the pulpit, which is a one-sided conversation.
Days’ skill as a preacher at Second Baptist Church in Atlantic City is matched by the work he has done outside the church in service to his community during his 21 years in the city.
Among other things, Days established the African-American Male Conference and is the president of the Vision 2000 Community Development Corp., which lists the Civil Rights Garden in Atlantic City among its accomplishments.
Second Baptist and other organizations — such as the Coalition for a Safe Community and the Fellowship of Churches of Atlantic City and Vicinity — have been working on justice issues long before Black Lives Matter, Days said.
“For a lot of the younger generation of pastors, they are jumping on the Black Lives Matter for the past two years because that’s their experience,” said Days. “They grew up in an integrated society with more chances. And so they see it as an opportunity to do something.”
The Black Lives Matter organization has parallels to two 1960s groups, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the South and the Black Panther Party in California, said Patricia Reid-Merritt, professor of social work and Africana studies at Stockton University in Galloway Township.
“There are great similarities. The focus point for organizing now around civil rights issues, around issues related to social justice, is the exact same thing that happened with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee,” Reid-Merritt said.
One thing the movements have in common is the heavy involvement of young people, particularly young college students, she said.
Young people “are far more energetic,” Reid-Merritt said. “Some are more idealistic and have been feeling the sense that they have been called to do something.”
Rabbi David M. Weis of Congregation Beth Israel in Northfield said he believes the best way to combat racism is to treat each other as neighbors and care for one another even if people physically aren’t neighbors.
“I can’t pretend that just because of an accident of birth and the color of my skin, that allows me not to feel that fear when I have to deal with a police officer,” Weis said. “I can’t pretend that if others experience that, that somehow it doesn’t have to do with me, too.”
This year, Weis joined fellow clergy and civil rights supporters for America’s Journey for Justice, a 40-day march that began in August in Selma, Alabama, and concluded in September in Washington, D.C. Weis, 60, walked 18.4 miles one day in the 100-degree Alabama heat and humidity.
After participating in what he calls a life-changing event, Weis came back and talked about his experience in his synagogue and at New Hope Baptist Church in Atlantic City.
“We’ve come a long way as a nation, but we still have a long way to go, and we can’t just pretend that we have done it,” Weis said. “We are standing on the shoulders of giants. … What’s yet to be seen is: Will we bequeath a better world to our children?”