An eloquent Baptist minister and civil rights proponent, Gardner Taylor was a close friend and political ally of Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as his father, Martin Luther King, Sr. In a 1958 telegram to King, Jr., Taylor wrote: “No public position [is] as important to me as our struggle” (Taylor, 6 September 1958).
The son of Reverend Washington and Selina Taylor, Gardner was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and received his AB from Louisiana’s Leland College in 1937. Although Taylor was accepted to the University of Michigan Law School, a serious car accident served as “the defining moment” of his life, and instead of attending law school he answered the call to the ministry, becoming the pastor at Concord Baptist Church in the Bedford–Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn (Gilbreath, “The Pulpit King”).
Taylor and King became better acquainted when King preached at Concord Baptist shortly before he began his postgraduate work at Boston University in 1951. King named Taylor as one of the African American Baptist church’s great preachers during a student discussion in those years. Taylor was often at King’s side during and after the Montgomery bus boycott, hosting King’s 1956 New York rally during the boycott, and making that evening’s fundraising speech. He visited King at the home of Sandy Ray during King’s recovery from his stabbing in 1958. He also participated in the 1958 Youth March for Integrated Schools at King’s behest.
At the 1961 annual convention of the National Baptist Convention (NBC), Taylor challenged the legitimacy of conservative incumbent J. H. Jackson’s presidency and noted his lackluster support of the civil rights movement. A shoving match over the convention’s speaking platform resulted in the injury of one of Jackson’s supporters, Reverend Arthur G. Wright, who later died. Jackson charged King with masterminding the turmoil and removed him from the vice-presidency of NBC’s National Sunday School and Baptist Training Union. Taylor conceded defeat. The confrontation led to a split by Taylor, King, and others who left the NBC and formed the Progressive National Baptist Convention.
Dubbed “the dean of the nation’s black preachers,” Taylor remained at Concord Baptist Church, one of the largest black churches in New York, until his retirement in 1990 (“American Preaching”). One of the first African Americans elected to the New York City Board of Education in 1958, he was also the first black and first Baptist president of the New York City Council of Churches. Taylor delivered the benediction at President Bill Clinton’s 1997 inauguration and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000. He authored How Shall They Preach? (1977), The Scarlet Thread (1981), and Chariots Aflame (1988).
“American Preaching: A Dying Art?” Time, 31 December 1979, 67.
Michael Eric Dyson, “Gardner Taylor: Poet Laureate of the Pulpit,” Christian Century 112, no. 1 (1995): 12–16.
Edward Gilbreath, “The Pulpit King,” Christianity Today 39, no. 14 (11 December 1995): 25–28.
Taylor, Black Churches of Brooklyn, 1994.
Taylor to King, 6 September 1958, MLKP-MBU.