“There is a power growing out of our experience of blackness in this land,” the Rev. Dr. Gardner Calvin Taylor wrote in 1968 at the 7th Session of the Progressive National Baptist Convention. A vital portion of that power existed in Rev. Taylor’s unwavering spirituality and political commitment. Those elements are now at rest. The good reverend joined the ancestors after attending Easter services at Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Durham, N.C. He died of an apparent heart attack at the Duke University Medical Center. He was 96.
Many New Yorkers, especially in Brooklyn, remember Rev. Taylor’s long tenure at the Concord Baptist Church of Christ where his stirring sermons were composed of deeply rooted Scriptural messages and ballasted by intelligent and commanding knowledge of the current conditions of Black America.
His biblical prowess matched his devotion to the welfare of his constituents, both near and far. During his more than seventy years in the pulpit, he traveled all over the world spreading the gospel, a gospel imbued with Christian duty and social progress.
Born June 18, 1918, in Baton Rouge, La., Taylor was the descendant of freed slaves and whose father was a Baptist preacher. He was 13 when his father died and his mother and aunt raised him.
Like so many ambitious young Black boys, Taylor wanted to be a lawyer but when told that it was a useless and impractical pursuit in a town saturated with racism and discrimination he turned his focus toward the ministry. He attended Oberlin College in Ohio and earned his divinity degree there in 1940.
Taylor, who married Laura Bell Scott in 1941 (she died in 1995), was still a student at Oberlin when he became pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in nearby Elyria, Ohio. After a three-year tenure he returned to his native state and was appointed pastor of Beulah Baptist Church in New Orleans until 1943. Four years later he was the minister at his father’s former church, Mount Zion Baptist in Baton Rouge.
His next and final pulpit stop was at Concord where he arrived in 1948, just in time to lead a church as senior pastor with 8,000 members and with the second largest Baptist congregation in the country. With a church tradition that began more than a decade before the outbreak of the Civil War, Concord and Taylor were a perfect fit. And that fit would last for 42 years, enduring financial challenges and a fire that totally demolished the building in 1952. But three years, thanks to Taylor tireless and resource leadership, a new church was built.
Taylor’s eminence grew with each roaring sermon. So much so, that by 1958 Mayor Wagner named him to New York City’s Board of Education, and this post gave him the opportunity he needed to push for educational reform and an end to segregation in the school system. His national prominence kept pace with his growing influence in church affairs, which as the civil rights movement gained traction, put him in direct contact with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Theirs would be a formidable tandem by 1961 when they were among the founders of the Progressive National Baptist Convention. They were no longer content to abide by the lack of social activism and political commitment of the National Baptist Convention, particularly its reluctance to become engaged in the fight for civil rights and social justice. Taylor would head the organization from 1967 to 1969.
This was at a time during the emergence of the Black Theology movement, and Taylor and Dr. King were firmly ensconced in the cadre of these militant ministers who began to voice their displeasure with a number of governmental policies, including the war in Vietnam.
Taylor was arrested several times for his involvement in civil rights rallies and demonstrations. Even so, his tendency was to lead from behind, to use the podium at his church to announce his opposition to racial injustice.
Because of this calm but determined resolve he was appointed to several civic organizations and leadership positions. At one time he was a director of the Urban League of Greater New York and a leader of the Kings County Democratic organizations.
“For over 40 years, Reverend Gardner Taylor uplifted the Bed-Stuy community with his spiritual guidance and commitment to justice. As one of the foremost civil rights leaders, not just in New York but across the nation, Rev. Taylor was instrumental in ending segregation and creating opportunity for communities of color. Our thoughts and prayers are with his loved ones during this difficult time,” Public Advocate Letitia James said in an email.
When David Dinkins began his quest to become New York City’s first African American mayor, Taylor was among the first to endorse his candidacy and stood with him throughout the campaign to victory.
Taylor was victorious on other fronts as well. He was an unyielding proponent of the brutal system of apartheid in South Africa and often spoke out against what he perceived as injustices across the African continent.
His sermons have been collected in many books, many of them under his name, and he was the recipient of 15 honorary doctorates. Among his colleagues, he was deemed a peerless preacher, a recognition that was often certified by church groups and other religious institutions.
“His life’s work has been a sermon as well,” former President Clinton said of him upon presenting him with the Medal of Freedom in 2000, “teaching that none live in dignity when they are oppressed, and that faith can transcend racial, social and economic boundaries.”
To complete the phrase voiced by Taylor in 1968: “There is much that is wrong, distorted, disfigured, crippled about us, but there are gifts and powers in the very limp which is our history here.” Rev. Taylor was one of those gifts.
“Besides his wife, Phillis whom he married in 1996, Taylor is survived by his daughter, Martha Taylor LaCroix, and a step-grandson, Marcus LaCroix. Phillis Taylor.
Arrangements are underway for the funeral services to be conducted at Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn.