November 7, 1884
October 2, 1968
The religious leader and radio evangelist Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux was born in Newport News, Virginia, one of thirteen children. During his youth he worked in the family seafood business, peddling fish to soldiers on the wharves. It was there he learned, as he would later say, "the power of persuasion."
As a young adult, Michaux maintained a successful wholesale food business and remained uninterested in a religious career until 1917, when his wife, a devout Baptist, convinced him to finance the building of a branch of the Church of Christ (Holiness) in Hopewell, Virginia. Soon Michaux was called to the pulpit by his wife and friends, who were impressed with his rhetorical skills, and he became the church's permanent pastor. When the end of World War I depopulated Hopewell, Michaux's fledgling church was forced to close, and in late 1919 he moved back to Newport News to organize a church under his own denomination, the Church of God.
Michaux's services were notable for being attended by significant numbers of white people. In 1924 Michaux even traveled to Baltimore to preach to an all-white congregation dominated by members of the Ku Klux Klan. He was arrested in 1926 after he held racially integrated services to challenge Virginia's laws banning interracial religious gatherings. Michaux appeared in court as his own counsel. Citing the Bible as his defense, he declared, "the sacred word of the Supreme Being makes no reference to class, division or race." He was fined but continued to hold integrated services despite repeated harassment by the police and townspeople.
In 1928 Michaux moved to Washington, D.C., "to save souls on a larger scale." There he established a branch of the Church of God and in 1929 began his first radio broadcasts from local station WJSV. By 1933 Michaux was broadcast nationally by CBS. Known as the "Happy Am I" evangelist, Michaux used his radio pulpit to support numerous causes, among them President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. Along with his political pronouncements, Michaux developed a social dimension to his ministry and, through the Church of God, provided shelter and food to destitute persons in Washington during the Great Depression.
In the 1930s Michaux also gained fame by holding mass baptisms, first in the Potomac River and after 1938 at Griffith Stadium. In the ballpark, home to the Washington Senators baseball team, Michaux baptized hundreds at a time in a large tank filled with water allegedly drawn from the river Jordan. The mass baptisms were accompanied by fireworks and colorful pageantry, including floats, marching bands, and elaborate enactments of the second coming of Christ. Michaux's mass baptisms continued into the 1960s, when they were moved to other large outdoor venues. A reporter for the Washington Post noted, "Michaux made headlines for many feats, but the 'Happy Am I' preacher probably will be remembered longest for his ball park meetings, religious extravaganzas that qualify him as a great showman."
In addition to his religious and political work, Michaux developed Mayfair Mansions, one of the largest privately owned housing projects for African Americans, which opened in Washington, D.C., in 1946. In the 1950s Michaux's popularity among African Americans waned when he broke with the Democratic Party to endorse President Dwight D. Eisenhower. At the end of his career Michaux became embroiled in controversies over his and the church's finances, which were both heavily invested in real estate. Many members of his congregation accused Michaux of hiding church financial information and of secretly transferring assets to his personal accounts. Despite the dark clouds over his final years, Michaux's Church of God has remained after his death as a monument to his successful and flamboyant career.
Logan, Rayford W., and Michael R. Winston, eds. Dictionary of American Negro Biography. New York: Norton, 1982.
Webb, Lillian Ashcraft. About My Father's Business: The Life of Elder Michaux. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1981.
thaddeus russell (1996)