The Church and the Civil Rights Movement
The socially-conscious goals of the Church of the Advocate’s founders, who specified that the church should be “free for all time” (abolishing the practice of pew rent) continue. The Advocate became a center of activism for the Civil Rights Movement embracing the cause of African-American and women’s rights. It was the site of several nationally significant events of these movements including the National Conference of Black Power (1968), the Black Panther Conference (1970) and the first ordination of women in the Episcopal Church (1974).
An inspiring collection of large and vivid wall murals commissioned in the 1970's records the “stations” of the Civil Rights movement. As in medieval churches, whose art served to illustrate and reinforce this liturgical message, these murals draw on Old Testament verses to dramatically illuminate parallels in African American history. Together, the medieval revival presentation of the building and the modern murals document the critical social role played by America’s inner city churches.
Reverend Paul Washington’s leadership allowed the church to support rights rallies and protests and also developed what he came to call the Theology of Black Power. He believed that God intended all people, regardless of their race and color, to be vessels of divine power.
The interpretation of this history continues as the church is part of a tour on the History of the Civil Rights Movement which is presented by the Greater Philadelphia Tourism and Marketing Corporation as well as a stop on various other tours through the year.
In addition to hosting these events, a collection of wall murals commissioned by Reverend Washington records the “stations” of the Civil Rights movement. These murals were created between 1973 and 1976 by Walter Edmonds and Richard Watson, who to this day enjoy coming to explain to visitors the story of their murals. These impressive and often contentious “art of protest” murals were inspired by Bible passages; they compare the oppression experienced by the Jewish people during their enslavement and captivity and African American oppression and response to it in American history. The murals are arranged in a traditional biblical cycle and culminate with the “I Have A Dream” speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. One can find portrayed in the murals a wide range of African American leaders and others who fought for the freedoms of African Americans including Toussaint L’Overture, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, Julian Bond, W.E. B. Dubois, Paul Robeson, and Malcolm X. As in medieval churches, whose art served to illustrate and reinforce the liturgical message, these modern murals address the contemporary concerns of the church’s congregation and allow dialogue among the races and socio-economic classes today.