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Role of black church in achieving civil rights is conference theme

The role of the black church in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and '60s and now in the 21st century was a topic of discussion at a conference Friday focused on reconnectingAfrican-Americans to the unity that has been historically provided by the church.

The theme of the third annual Rise to Freedom Conference is "The Role of the Church in the African-American Rise to Freedom."

"We need to do a lot more of this more often," said Mary Clavell, a conference attendee who works at New Directions Youth and Family Services.

"This is a good beginning," said Gwen Neal, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Buffalo and Erie County.

"We need to focus on helping us to understand where we are in history. We keep talking like we're still in the Civil Rights Era. We're way past Civil Rights. We're in the post-Civil Rights Era," said L. Nathan Hare, executive director of the Community Action Organization of Erie County. The organization is co-hosting the conference along with the Buffalo Local Action Committee, an outgrowth of the Millions More Movement.

The next step, Hare added, is "to ask ourselves if the slavery holocaust never occurred, what would we be?"

Among the 25 speakers for the two-day event are national figures such as Regennia Williams, a professor at Cleveland State University, and R. Drew Smith, a professor at Morehouse College.

During Friday's session, Williams and Smith explained how the struggles of African-Americans go beyond the Civil Rights movement in the South in the 1950s and '60s.

For example, legislation dealing with segregation and Jim Crow laws -- such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 -- have been passed already. These days, it's about a new way of addressing issues.

"We're now living in post-Civil Rights, and that's an important thing," Drew said. "Not that we've gotten beyond the issues that relate to matters of race, equity and justice. The issues are ongoing. We need to move beyond this paradigm in our thinking of the kind of black church activism so pronounced in the 1950s and '60s. We can't live off the reputation of black churches back then."

Cynthia Ellis, a city resident who attended Friday's conference, said the conference was long overdue and that she would have liked to have heard more about issues such as homelessness and health care for the underserved.

"We have to see what happens beyond the conference," Ellis said. "We shouldn't wait a year to talk about a strategy."

The Rise to Freedom conference continues through 4 p.m. today in True Bethel Baptist Church, 907 E. Ferry St.

e-mail: dswilliams@buffnews.com

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