The Rev. Gardner C. Taylor, a grandson of slaves who took over a Baptist pulpit in Brooklyn in 1948, when overt racism defined much of American life, and became an influential voice for civil rights and one of the nation’s most eloquent churchmen, died on Sunday in Durham, N.C. He was 96.
Mr. Taylor died at the Duke University Medical Center after attending Easter services at Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Durham and a luncheon with his wife, Phillis Taylor. She said the cause was apparently a heart attack. Mr. Taylor, who had retired 25 years ago and moved to Raleigh, N.C., in 2004, had lived at the Hillcrest Convalescent Center in Durham since 2011.
For 42 years, until his retirement in 1990, Mr. Taylor was the senior pastor of the Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. But his impact as a speaker, writer and political force in the city and in a nation of long-segregated schools, churches and other institutions reached far beyond his 10,000-member congregation.
The author of many books and 2,000 sermons and the recipient of 15 honorary doctorates, Mr. Taylor was a rumbling, rhythmic orator who marshaled Scripture, mystical allusions and the art of plain talk into sermons of emotional power. In 1980, Time magazine called him the dean of black preachers in America. In 1996, Baylor University said he was one of the most effective preachers in the English-speaking world.
He often spoke passionately about the legacies of black churches in America, as in this passage cited by nationalministries.org:
“One of the great contributions of the black church was giving to our people a sense of significance and importance at a time when society, by design, did almost everything it could to strip us of our humanity. But come Sunday morning, we could put our on dress clothes and become deacons, deaconesses and ushers, and hear the preacher say, ‘You are a child of God’ — at a time when white society, by statute, custom and conversation, just called us ‘niggers.’
“How could we have survived without a sense of God and the church telling us that we do matter?” he continued. “Where would we have been if there had been nowhere we could be told that we matter?”
He delivered lectures and sermons in South Africa, Zambia, Malawi, Denmark, England, Scotland, Australia, China and Japan, and at universities and churches across the United States. In 1993, he gave the pre-inauguration sermon for President-elect Bill Clinton at the Metropolitan A.M.E. Church in Washington, and in 2000 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from Mr. Clinton.
“His life’s work has been a sermon as well,” Mr. Clinton said at the time, “teaching that none live in dignity when they are oppressed, and that faith can transcend racial, social and economic boundaries.”
Mr. Taylor gained national prominence in 1961 when he, his friend and ally the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other black clergy members broke with the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A. — America’s largest black Christian denomination — over its tepid support of civil rights and founded the Progressive National Baptist Convention, committed to social justice, desegregation and affirmative action. Mr. Taylor was its president from 1967 to 1969.
The new convention provided Dr. King with a national base of hundreds of churches for his civil rights advocacy at a time when many older, more conservative black people, and their churches, rejected his confrontational tactics of boycotts, sit-ins and protest marches. A wide gulf still separates the two groups.
In New York, Mr. Taylor organized civil rights marches and was arrested three times during protests in the 1960s. But he was known less for militancy than for quiet activism. He was a director of the Urban League of Greater New York, a member of the New York City Commission on Intergroup Relations and a leader of the Kings County Democratic organization.
In 1958, Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. named him to the New York City Board of Education, the second black member in its history. In a three-year tenure, he attacked de facto segregation in city schools and argued that federal aid should be denied private schools while public schools were desperate for funds. He was an early supporter of David N. Dinkins, who became the city’s first black mayor after his election in 1989.
Gardner Calvin Taylor was born on June 18, 1918, in Baton Rouge, La., to the Rev. Washington M. and Selina Taylor. His father, born in 1870 to emancipated slaves, was a Baptist pastor and died when the boy was 13. He was raised by his mother, who was a teacher, and an aunt.
He attended segregated schools and grew up in a city so intent on keeping races apart that it sprayed pesticides to kill mosquitoes only in white neighborhoods, stopping at the edge of black areas. He wanted to be a civil rights lawyer, although no black person had ever been admitted to the Louisiana bar.
“Where are you going to practice?” a friend asked. “In the middle of the Mississippi River?”
When he was 19, he survived a car collision that left two white men dead. “The best I expected was probably years in prison,” he told The New York Post in 1958. “The worst could have been a lynching.”
But at an inquest, two white witnesses testified that the crash was not Mr. Taylor’s fault. He reassessed his life, enrolled at Oberlin College in Ohio and earned a divinity degree in 1940.
The next year he married Laura Bell Scott. She died in 1995, and he married Phillis Strong in 1996.
Besides his wife, Mr. Taylor is survived by his daughter, Martha Taylor LaCroix, and a step-grandson, Marcus LaCroix.
Mr. Taylor was still a student at Oberlin when he became the pastor of Bethany Baptist Church, in nearby Elyria, Ohio, serving from 1938 to 1941. He went on to be pastor of the Beulah Baptist Church in New Orleans, until 1943, and of his father’s former congregation, Mount Zion Baptist Church, in Baton Rouge, until 1947.
He faced a daunting challenge in Brooklyn a year later. Segregation and racism were widespread in America, and the Concord church — the second largest Baptist congregation in America, with 8,000 members — had a proud history of black activism.
Founded in 1847, 16 years before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the congregation was led by abolitionists in its early years, when it became a sanctuary for runaway slaves. Indeed, its second pastor was a runaway slave. Later pastors were known for helping slaves’ descendants and black migrants from the South. Mr. Taylor’s civil rights work and rise to national stature upheld the church’s traditions.
The church, occupying an entire block, was destroyed by fire in 1952, but with help from other faiths, Mr. Taylor and the congregation raised $1.7 million and rebuilt the edifice in 1955. The church eventually added thousands of members and established a credit union to provide loans that commercial banks denied blacks, a 121-bed nursing home, a center for the elderly and an elementary school.
In 1988, Mr. Taylor and his congregation raised $1 million to establish the Christ Fund, a church endowment whose annual interest is used to provide community improvement grants to central Brooklyn neighborhoods, so far totaling more than $1 million.
When Mr. Taylor retired, New Yorkers in and outside Brooklyn hailed his tenure. “We’ve had him so long, he’s an institution,” Mayor Dinkins said.
Mr. Taylor’s sermons are archived at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. His books include “How Shall They Preach” (1976), “The Scarlet Thread” (1981), “Chariots Aflame” (1988), “We Have This Ministry” (1996, with Samuel Proctor), and “Faith in the Fire: Wisdom for Life” (2011).
Arrangements were being made for a funeral in Brooklyn at the Concord church.