400-year history of politics and activism in Black churches

The church has shaped the Black experience in the U.S., playing a crucial role in the fight for equality. Historian and author Henry Louis Gates Jr. explores it in his new docuseries on PBS.
5:21 | 02/18/21

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Transcript for 400-year history of politics and activism in Black churches
This is our story Reporter: They were the first praise houses that became today's black church. The black church's start in America, what was its role? It was the main place of contact, it was ground zero. Everything that was essential to our everyday living. It was many people's first introduction to entertainment. It was a stage, it was a theater. You know, entertainment shouldn't be in the church. What do you think the preacher does? The role of music in the black church is everything. Reporter: The black church has been the driving force, shaping the history of the black experience and playing a crucial role in the fight for equality. Did you join the church? I joined the church at the age of 7, that's when I was that's when I feel like I really got it. The black church has sustained the African-American people from the days of slavery to this day. Reporter: Now the black church is bei chronicled in a pbs four-hour docuseries. Who are the five greatest black preachers of all time? There's so many. Reporter: Narrated and executive produced by historian and author Dr. Henry Lewis Gates. The church gave people a sense of value and of belonging and of worthiness. I don't know how we could have survived as a people without it. Tell us a little bit about the documentary and who is it for? This documentary is for the entire black community, but I also think it's sort of an exploration of American history as well. Reporter: Capturing the 400-year history of the black church, the docuseries highlights when thousands of enslaved Africans came to America's shores, bringing with them the spirituality and customs that would form their christianity. from the beginning, religion and activism intersected. The civil rights movement led by mostly religious figures like the reverend martin Luther king Jr. I am convinced that nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in our struggle for freedom and human dignity. Reporter: Places of worship became the space to inform and educate black people of their rights, mobilizing them to the polls en masse. The docuseries also highlighting some of the church's flaws. It was really important for us that this not just be a kiss to the black church, put that we're really honest about some of the places where the church has fallen short. We were very quick to address racism, but very slow to address sexism. We're still dealing with churches who don't recognize women as preaches. We serve a Jesus who came and turned over the tables! We're dealing with churches wrestling with whether or not they will recognize same-sex marriage. You guys make clear that the black church, like America, is continuing to evolve. The church has that choice. It can do that change, or it can stay stagnant. Oh the power yeah Reporter: Part of the church's evolution can be seen and heard in one sacred space, music. Songs steeped in struggle. But brimming with hope. So rise with Jesus Music is everything. It was a way of remembering the story of Jesus and his redemption and the story of the israelites, you know. From the underground railroad, those songs transmitted stories. And so music is the lifeblood. Oh yeah If you could sum up the message of gospel music in one word, what would that one word be? Reviving. Reporter: Four-time grammy award winner, billboard chart topper, lifetime achievement award winner Yolanda adins helped redefine modern gospel. sets. Gospel music transcends location. It transcends race. It transcends gender. It transcends all of that. Because the is always so pure. You had folks like Rosetta Thorpe who started in the church, but really was the mother of the rock 'N' roll sound. So that's where your chuck berry, that's where they got those riffs. You know, we've been doing this kind of ground-breaking stuff for a while. What was mama's favorite song? Whoo, gosh. He knows just how much we can bear Can a brother hear a bar of it? Can I hear a little of it? Show me now. We are heavenly father's children Reporter: Old songs that have stirred new souls for generations. Yet there are times when we find the answer "The black church: This is our story, this is our song" available to stream now on pbs.org and the pbs video app.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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