Prathia L. Hall is one of those women I wished I had met somewhere along the way.
I’m sure I would have been enthralled and moved to shout “Amen” by the force of her preaching. And I would have been excited to learn from her Bible teaching or scholarly lectures.
If I had met her when I was a shy, young woman looking for my place in the world, I’m sure she would have encouraged me by espousing her “Freedom Faith.” It says succinctly, “I know that I was God’s child and was therefore loved and important.”
She was that kind of woman – fiery, steady, determined and committed to living her life with a strong and focused faith.
As a young woman in the civil rights movement, she spoke, preached and prayed with such power that Martin Luther King Jr. once remarked, “Prathia Hall is one of the platform speakers I would prefer not to follow.”
I first learned about Hall, whose married name was Wynn, through my pastor a couple of years ago. Hall died at about age 62 in August 2002. She had endured health problems for several years following a car accident.
Over the last month, I’ve become more acquainted with her life story through research for a Women’s History Month program at our church, where I will portray her in a skit.
Each time I read something, I gain new insights into what fortitude she exhibited during the civil rights movement and the faith she possessed when she became a barrier-breaking Baptist woman preacher.
I love what she once said, making plain her call into the ministry. “I stood in the authenticity of my being: Black, preacher, Baptist, woman. For the same God who made me a preacher made me a woman, and I am convinced that God was not confused on either account.”
Hall grew up in Philadelphia and was the daughter of a Baptist preacher. As a youngster, her parents nurtured in her a love for God and the boldness and eloquence to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Their strong sense of social justice stirred a desire in her to enter the civil rights movement as a teenager. She eventually left her studies at Temple University and became a Freedom Rider with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Her courageous work led to her becoming one of SNCC’s first women field leaders.
I have great admiration for those who put their lives on the line and fought against injustice and for equality during the movement.
In the early 1960s, Hall raised her voice in some of the movement’s toughest battlegrounds in southwest Georgia and Alabama. She endured arrests, threats and being shot at while registering voters and encouraging residents to stand up for their rights.
Her fiery oratory grew praise during those early testy years. In 1962, she offered a powerful prayer at a mass meeting in Terrell County, Ga., encouraging a congregation whose church had been burned down by the Ku Klux Klan.
That prayer led some to call her the inspiration behind King’s use of the phrase, “I have a dream.” However, Hall said in an interview in 2001 that she does not recall King being present in the audience the night she prayed.
“She does remember using the phrase “I have a dream” at the Mt. Olive prayer service and talking about her dream of freedom,” author Drew D. Hansen wrote in “The Dream: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech that Inspired a Nation.”
“She said if she did have a part in King’s use of the phrase she was ‘greatly honored’ and that King ‘did more with it than I could have done.'”
After leaving SNCC, Hall continued to integrate her strong sense of social consciousness into her work as a pastor and a professor in the academic world.
She was ordained in 1977 and assumed leadership of Mount Sharon Baptist Church in Philadelphia, the church her father pastored until his death.
In 1982, she became the first woman to be accepted in the Baptist Ministers Conference of Philadelphia and Vicinity and was one of the first women ordained in the American Baptist Association.
Hall preached, taught and lectured across the country, becoming a mentor and inspiration to many seminarians and women ministers.
She demonstrated a strong faith born of trusting God through her personal trials and tests, including the death of her 23-year-old daughter.
“Faith is not faith until it is tested in the crucible of struggle and the fiery trials of life,” she preached in a sermon titled “When Faith Trembles.”
She is an example for me of a woman who lived her life with passion and purpose, a woman who allowed God to use her life for Kingdom purposes.
“Like Jeremiah, I have always had a sense that my life wasn’t mine to simply do with as I please,” Hall said. “My earliest memories have some spiritual character. I have always been aware of God’s presence in my life, and I knew that would have something to do with how I would live my life.”