Gardner C. Taylor dies at 96; leading voice of civil rights movement

The Rev. Gardner C. Taylor, an influential preacher and civil rights advocate, dies at 96

The Rev. Gardner C. Taylor, who was widely regarded as the dean of American preaching and who played a key role in the civil rights movement, has died in North Carolina. He was 96.

Taylor died on Easter Sunday, according to the Progressive National Baptist Convention, a denomination he helped form and once led. Taylor was the longtime pastor of the Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn, N.Y., but had retired to Raleigh, N.C. He died in nearby Durham.

Taylor was an ally and confidant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Around 1960, at a time when some black pastors considered King too politically liberal and rejected his approach to civil rights advocacy, Taylor sided with King. The two men were among a group who formed the Progressive National Baptist Convention, which became a platform for King's civil rights work. Taylor served as president of the denomination in the late 1960s.

The Rev. Tyrone S. Pitts, a former leader of the convention, said Taylor "was one of the people who helped frame the civil rights movement." In a 2007 interview with the Associated Press, Taylor described the Bible as a "document for the outcast" that "only an oppressed people can more easily grasp."

The grandson of slaves, Taylor was born June 18, 1918, in Baton Rouge, La., where his father was a Baptist preacher and his mother a teacher. Taylor wanted to became a lawyer, even though at that time no blacks were admitted to the bar, but he changed course after receiving a bachelor's degree from historically black Leland College in Louisiana.

He enrolled at Oberlin College in Ohio and earned a divinity degree in 1940. After a few years leading Baptist congregations in Ohio and Louisiana, he arrived at Concord Baptist Church of Christ in 1948. He led that congregation for more than four decades, building it into one of the largest churches in New York.

Taylor was appointed to the New York City Board of Education in 1958, the second African American to serve in that role.

His powerful voice and preaching influenced generations of preachers from all backgrounds. NBC radio broadcast his sermons starting in the 1950s. In 1996, he was named one of the 12 best preachers in the English-speaking world based on a survey of seminary professors and editors of religious journals.

Taylor retired as a pastor in 1990, but remained a social activist.

"I think evangelicals need a social conscience about the people who are least defended and most vulnerable in the society," Taylor said in a 1995 interview with Christianity Today. "If Christianity is not that, forget about it."

In 2000, President Clinton awarded Taylor the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Zoll writes for the Associated Press.

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