Austin, Junius C., Rev. 1887–1968
Rev. Junius C. Austin 1887–1968
Minister, community leader
Pastor of Chicago’s Pilgrim Baptist Church for over 40 years, the Rev. Junius C. Austin was widely regarded as among the greatest orators of his day. Congregants arrived at church hours ahead of time so that they could get in to hear his preaching. Yet Austin had an influence that extended beyond simply his charisma and skill in the pulpit. His career intersected with, and had an impact upon, several of the most important developments in twentieth-century black life, including black nationalism, the birth of gospel music, the growing activism of black community organizations, and the forging of links between African Americans and black African leaders.
“Before Gardner Taylor, Sandy Ray, Samuel Proctor, J.H. Jackson, and Martin Luther King, Jr.—all twentieth-century preachers of enormous influence—there was Junius C. Austin,” wrote Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Cornel West in their book The African American Century. Junius Caesar Austin was born in New Canton, in Buckingham County, Virginia, in 1887. When he was 11 years old, he felt the call of the ministry, and his family sent him to Virginia Seminary and College in Lynchburg. The Virginia Seminary, formed the year Austin was born, promoted an independent spirit among African Americans during the some of the bleakest years of their existence in the South after the Civil War, and Austin’s attitudes were shaped by his education there.
Austin received three degrees from Virginia Seminary and College, culminating in a Doctor of Divinity degree in 1910. He was named class orator and gave a commencement address, entitled “Entering the Conflict,” as part of the graduation ceremonies. Austin moved on to complete a theology degree at Temple University in Philadelphia, after which he began his preaching career at a sequence of small Virginia churches. He was chosen as pastor of Pittsburgh’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1915.
From the start, Austin was a compelling leader, both inside the church and in the wider world. He built up Ebenezer Baptist’s congregation to an impressive membership of 5,000, and he won notice in national Baptist circles. Austin was active in early efforts at civil rights organizing and won election to the presidency of the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He encouraged Southern blacks to move northward and set up a financial institution, the Steele City National Bank, and a real estate office, the Home Finder’s League, to help them settle in once they had arrived in Pittsburgh.
Austin also became closely involved with the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and its militant and charismatic leader, Marcus Garvey. In a widely reprinted photograph of Garvey, taken as he rode through New York in a large convertible car dressed in quasi-military regalia, Austin appeared seated to Garvey’s right. The UNIA’s focus on black economic self-help appealed to Austin, and he also became convinced of the need for African-American leaders to build ties with African peoples. In the words of Gates
At a Glance…
Born in 1887 in New Canton, Buckingham County, VA; died in 1968; married; two children. Education: Virginia Seminary and College, Lynchburg, AB, 1905, BA, 1908, DD, 1910. Religion: Baptist.
Career: Preached at small churches in Virginia, 1910-15; Ebenezer Baptist Church, Pittsburgh, PA, pastor, 1915-26; Pilgrim Baptist Church, Chicago, pastor, 1926-68.
Memberships: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Pittsburgh chapter, president and member, 1920s.
and West, Austin was “the leading Christian figure in the black nationalist movement.”
In 1926 Austin was chosen as minister at Pilgrim Baptist Church on Chicago’s South Side, replacing a previous pastor who had died unexpectedly. Not yet 40, he now headed one of the largest African-American Baptist churches in a city swelling with new migrants from the South. He would remain at Pilgrim Baptist until his death 42 years later in 1968, and his accomplishments there magnified the ones he had notched in Pittsburgh. Assuming control of a church that was $150,000 in debt, Austin balanced the books within a few years and began to draw new members to his flock. By 1930, Pilgrim Baptist was one of the ten largest church congregations in the United States.
On a typical Sunday, Austin preached two or even three sermons to packed pews. He was heard on the radio, and even his detractors (he feuded with crosstown Olivet Baptist Church) conceded that he was a preacher of nearly unparalleled power and range. Dubbed the “dancing preacher” for the grace and power of his physical self-presentation, Austin addressed not only religious but also social themes during his sermons. “Capitalism,” he said (as quoted by Randall K. Burkett in his article “The Baptist Church in Years of Crisis”), “clings to the moribund platitude that all men have equal opportunities to acquire and achieve.” Such was the power of Austin’s sermons that, it was rumored, he had to remove his notes quickly from the pulpit after he spoke, or they would be stolen by aspiring young preachers eager to learn his secrets.
Austin at first hired a classically trained minister of music at Pilgrim Baptist, but he noticed the power that the blues-influenced strains of what would become known as gospel music had over black newcomers to Chicago, fresh from the rural South. He installed a new head of the music ministry, and his appointment of Thomas A. Dorsey, the composer of such heartfelt and durable hymns as “Peace in the Valley,” is regarded by music historians as a key moment in the evolution of gospel as a genre.
The end result was that Austin’s influence and the church’s reach were magnified. By the late 1930s, even as black Chicagoans bore the brunt of the Great Depression, Pilgrim Baptist had constructed a new gymnasium, community center, and housing project. Austin continued to maintain contacts in the NAACP, and he also worked to put into practice some of the self-help ideals of the Garveyite movement, establishing a Cooperative Business League and becoming an early advocate of the idea that African Americans should strive to keep their shopping dollars within their own communities.
Political leaders realized the depth of Austin’s appeal and courted his favor. A Republican like most other African Americans at the time, Austin supported Chicago mayor “Big Bill” Thompson and was instrumental in promoting the election of the first African-American U.S. Representative since the Reconstruction era, Republican Oscar DePriest. Yet he also realized the importance of bargaining for influence in both parties and of keeping either one from taking the black vote for granted. Austin participated in a national task force that explored the possibility of a rapprochement between blacks and the Democratic Party, an event considered an important step in the black changeover to the Democrats during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Later in life, Austin worked to realize Garvey’s dream of Pan-African unity. Pilgrim Baptist, thanks to his leadership, had been able to establish several missions in African countries, and Austin himself traveled to several West African countries in 1950. Black selfgovernment was on the way, and it impressed Austin mightily. “I saw and counselled with a black president and a black secretary of state,” Austin wrote (as quoted by Burkett). “I saw black clerks and managers working in stores and black officials high in government everywhere I went. I went to Africa only to be convinced that not only the hope of the black man, but the hope of peace and the hope of the world rests in Africa.”
Married and the father of two children, Austin receded from public consciousness after his death in 1968. Yet the charismatic precedent he had set resounded through the history of African-American preaching, and the structures he helped put in place, linking the black church to a great variety of community initiatives, showed their importance in the upheavals of the twentieth century’s second half. He took his place in history as, in the words of Gates and West, “one of the first black ministers to demonstrate both the economic and political potential of the church.”
Burkett, Randall K., “The Baptist Church in Years of Crisis: J.C. Austin and Pilgrim Baptist Church, 1926-1950,” in Timothy E. Fulop and Albert J. Raboteau, eds., African-American Religion: Interpretive Essays in History and Culture, Routledge, 1997.
Gates, Henry Louis, and Cornel West, The African-American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Country, Free Press, 2000.
—James M. Manheim
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