PBS Documentary Highlights the ‘Power of Belief’ Behind the Black Church

Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. talks with African-American leaders, from Oprah to Senator Raphael Warnock, on the role of the Black Church in American history, then and now.

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- Posted on Feb 22, 2021

Henry Louis Gates Jr., admires Church of God In Christ West Angeles mural (Courtesy of McGee Media)

The church has been a central part of the Black community in the United States for over 400 years. In the face of oppression and adversity, its story is one of strength and hope. Harvard Professor, historian, and award-winning filmmaker Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., shares this profound history in the new PBS documentary series, The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song.  

“The Black church is the oldest, the most continuous and most important institution created in the history of Black people in this country,” Dr. Gates said in a recent interview. “I am honored that we have made this series.”  

The four-hour, two-part series is an in-depth look at that institution, from its beginnings during slavery, to its role during the Civil Rights movement right up to the present day. The sweeping history is told through interviews, pictures, stories, and songs.

Dr. Gates spoke with a myriad of African-American spiritual leaders, historians, and celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey, John Legend, Jennifer Hudson, Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock, Yolanda Adams, Cornel West, Pastor Shirley Caesar, Reverend Al Sharpton, and many more. 

In fact, John Legend was so excited about the project—he first got into music at a young age by singing in his Pentecostal church’s choir—he signed on to be an executive producer.  “I think us learning about the resilience and the community that was built in the Black church is an essential part of us understanding how Black folks have made it this far in this country when there were so many forces that were conspiring against us doing so,” he said.  

Throughout American history the Black church has been a safe haven for many. It was a place where people who faced enslavement, discrimination, and oppression could freely worship God and have some control over their own lives. “The Black church was more than the spiritual home,” Rev. Al Sharpton says in the series trailer. “It was the epicenter of Black life.” 

Adds Oprah Winfrey: “The church gave people a sense of value and a belonging and a worthiness. I don’t know how we as a people could have survived without it.” 

Yet the Black church wasn’t only about survival. It was about thriving. It was about freedom. It was about liberation. The church was vital to the decades-long Civil Rights movement. Figures in the fight for equality, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Rev. Joseph Lowry, and C.T. Vivian, were also leaders in the Black church.  

“[The Black community] fashioned a Christianity with a liberating God at its center,” says Gates.  

This idea gets to the heart of why the creators feel this story needs to be told now. In the past year, the African American community has had to deal with higher-than-average Covid-19 numbers, as well as the national fallout from the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.  

“When we began working on this documentary,” says Dr. Gates, “never could I imagine that we'd be sharing it with audiences at a time when these stories of race and resilience, struggle and redemption, hope and healing would be so desperately needed, given all that we have lost and all that we have endured in the year 2020.” 

 “We wanted to make the series about this sheer transcendent power of belief,” says Dr. Gates, “and never has that message been more important than it is today.” 

The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song is a production of McGee Media, Inkwell Media and WETA Washington, D.C. It aired on PBS this February. Dr. Gates also wrote a book on the subject of the same name. For more information about the series and the book, visit here.  

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