Lewis Diuguid

Black church must undergo a civil rights revival

The black church for baby boomers like Maurice A. Watson embodied a lot more than a place for worship.

The civil rights movement emerged from the church. It gave the nation and the world leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

But the black church also was the training ground for future leaders like Watson, who since April 2012 has been chairman of the prestigious law firm Husch Blackwell.

“What might have been lost in the schools (because of segregation, old textbooks and other outdated material) was provided in the church,” said Watson, who has fond memories of attending Paseo Baptist Church.

“We were given opportunities to compete in learning Bible Scripture, speaking, singing, learning and being able to present to large groups of adults,” he said. “It helped build confidence. You were assessed and evaluated in your performance in the church. The church was pivotal compared with today.”

Watson’s dad worked for Ford at the Claycomo plant, his mother for the state welfare department. He credits them, the church and the community for getting him through the Kansas City Public Schools, his leap to Barstow School, and then in 1976 to Harvard University, where he received his undergraduate and law degrees.

He worked afterward for U.S. Sen. Jack Danforth before joining Husch Blackwell in 1987. Watson also credits the civil rights movement for his education and career.

One of the biggest benefits of the movement was making college possible like never before for children of working-class black families.

The movement motivated Watson to achieve. It also opened America’s eyes to the talents of young African Americans.

“It creates a feeling of obligation for many of us,” Watson said. “I learned the lesson that to those whom much is given, much is expected.”

Giving back is what people need to do through the church, schools, businesses, neighborhoods and other institutions to prepare youths for the next 50 years. It has to be as multifaceted and inclusive as the civil rights movement was.

The exodus of the black middle class has stranded a disproportionate number of people of color in generational urban poverty without successful role models. They also face a new discrimination in the information age; they arecut off from digital access on financing, college and careers. A new engagement now similar to the one Watson grew up with has to be the push for the next 50 years.

“People have to be part of the community,” said Watson, who joins others for this column series looking at 50 years of civil rights advances while sharing a vision for the next half-century. “If you are not part of a strong healthy community, you become part of a dysfunctional, dangerous community.”

Watson expects that interracial relationships and multiracial children will make race a non-issue 50 years from now. People won’t totally exist in a colorblind society. “But we are moving in that direction,” Watson said.

What Watson, who is gay, does see is a seismic shift in the acceptance of gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people. “It is every bit as important to who I am and what I stand for,” he said.

President Barack Obama ended the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military. By also saying he favored same sex marriage, Obama made it easier for people to express their support for the full acceptance of the LGBT community.

“Long ago I decided not to be ashamed of it,” Watson said. “It forces people to respect that. If you are ashamed of something that you are, how can you have any expectation that others will have respect for that?”