The Rev. Gardner C. Taylor, a Baton Rouge native who was a key figure in the civil rights movement and spent some early years of his preaching career in the capital city, has died at age 96.
Taylor died on Easter Sunday in North Carolina, according to the Progressive National Baptist Convention, a denomination he helped form and once led.
He graduated from the now-closed Leland College in Baker, was the pastor of Baton Rouge’s Mount Zion First Baptist Church in the 1940s before civil rights leader T.J. Jemison, and eventually moved to New York, where he spent decades as the pastor of Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn.
The Rev. Lee Wesley, the 70-year-old pastor of Baton Rouge’s Community Bible Baptist church, grew up listening to Taylor’s preaching and sought his counsel throughout his lifetime. He said many of Taylor’s religious teachings came back to the same message.
“The only thing that’s gonna change people is the Gospel,” Wesley recalled as Taylor’s hallmark teaching. “The only thing that’s gonna change the way we treat each other — particularly in race — is the Gospel. We can pass all sorts of civil rights laws, but they do not change the heart of people.”
Taylor’s grandparents were slaves and he grew up in Baton Rouge when Jim Crow laws relegated black people to “separate but equal” status. Wesley said Taylor’s upbringing shaped his passion for civil rights and made him strive toward equality. His father, the Rev. Washington M. Taylor, also served as a pastor.
Wesley said Taylor’s messages transcended races and denominations, and that his influence spanned throughout the Christian spectrum. He described Taylor as “a great communicator, a man of great passion, a man who loved people and spent his life serving the Lord.”
Taylor received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000 from President Bill Clinton. Time Magazine called him “the dean of the nation’s black preachers.”
Taylor was an ally and confidant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Around 1960, at a time when some black pastors considered King too politically liberal and rejected his approach to civil rights advocacy, Taylor sided with King. The two men were among a group who formed the Progressive National Baptist Convention, which became a platform for King’s civil rights work. Taylor at one point served as president of the denomination.
The Rev. Tyrone S. Pitts, a former leader of the convention, said Taylor “was one of the people who helped frame the civil rights movement.” In a 2007 interview with The Associated Press, Taylor described the Bible as a “document for the outcast” that “only an oppressed people can more easily grasp.”
His powerful voice and preaching influenced generations of preachers from all backgrounds. NBC radio broadcast his sermons starting in the 1950s. In 1996, he was named one of the 12 best preachers in the English-speaking world based on a survey of seminary professors and editors of religious journals.
Despite his fame, Wesley said Taylor periodically returned home and professed his love for Baton Rouge and Louisiana.
“He was a Louisiana boy, a Baton Rouge boy,” Wesley said. “His roots were here, his early training was here when he was in college and he had many friends still here.”
Taylor was the author of many books, including “How Shall They Preach,” “The Scarlet Thread” and “Chariots Aflame.”
Wesley said other religious leaders flocked to him for advice.
“He was a preacher’s preacher, he was a pastor’s pastor,” he said.
Taylor retired in 1990 and moved to Raleigh, North Carolina. The New York Times reported that he was married to Laura Bell Scott until her death in 1995. The paper also reported that he is survived by Phillis Strong, who he married in 1996, as well as his daughter, Martha Taylor LaCroix, and a step-grandson, Marcus LaCroix.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.