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 said.
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 . . . 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.
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.
If black lives matter, Cain said, "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."
The Rev. Collins A. Days Sr., 55, said he prefers dealing with these issues in workshops, where there can be interaction, as opposed to the pulpit. Days, who preaches at Second Baptist Church and has been in Atlantic City for 21 years, established the African-American Male Conference and is the president of the Vision 2000 Community Development Corp.
"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," he said. "They grew up in an integrated society with more chances. And so they see it as an opportunity to do something."
The Black Lives movement 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. "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. Another similarity, she said, is the heavy involvement of young people, who bring energy and idealism.
In August, Rabbi David M. Weis of Congregation Beth Israel in Northfield joined fellow clergy and civil rights supporters for a 40-day march from Selma to Washington. "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."