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As I sat watching Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s Black Church documentary last year, I furiously took notes. While I alternated between furiously taking notes while trying not to pause the program too much, texting friends who were also watching it air in real time, and marvelling at the breadth of history being presented, one new-to-me name in particular stood out: Prathia Hall.
As Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock says, “People need to know that before it was Martin’s dream, it was Prathia’s prayer.”
Prathia Hall was born in January of 1940. Her father was a preacher who founded Mt. Sharon Baptist Church in Philidelphia, which Hall herself would later pastor.
When Hall was just five years old, she had a firsthand experience with the ugliness of racism. While she traveled with her family to visit her grandparents, they were forced to move to a segregated train car as they traveled South of the Mason-Dixon. In 1961, college student Hall began her career as an activist when she took part in a sit-in at a drive-in restaurant that refused to serve Black customers.
The following year, Hall joined SNCC and was wounded when night riders shot into the house where she and other activists were staying. Four days later, following the KKK’s burning of two southwest Georgia churches, Hall would utter the words, “I have a dream,” during a prayer meeting where Dr. King was also in attendance.
In fact, Dr. King himself once said, “Prathia Hall is the one platform speaker I would prefer not to follow.”
Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham provides context for King’s use of this phrase in his famous speech at the 1963 March on Washington, saying, “she [Hall] said when she was driving him [King] to the airport, he said, ‘I love the way you did that. I’m gonna use that…I have a dream. I have a dream today,’ that was Prathia Hall.”
Spurred by the horrors of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, the death of her father, the eruption of student sit-ins like the one she herself participated in, and her own conviction that, “We are tired of segregation and we want equality now,” Hall continued her freedom-faith work and activism beyond a historical moment at that 1962 prayer meeting.
Rev. Dr. Hall Wynn’s life work was driven around the concept of freedom-faith: rooted in freedom, justice, and liberation. She earned a Master of Divinity, a Master of Theology, and a Ph.D. She would also go on to hold the Martin Luther King Chair in Social Ethics at the Boston University School of Theology. She had a sharp eye and ear for the causes that affect social justice, and she described her origins in “freedom faith” as follows: “Well it sounds presumptuous to say you were born with a mission, but I have always had a deep passion for justice. I was raised by my parents in what I believe to be the central dynamic in the African-American religious tradition. That is, an integration of the religious and the political. It is a belief that God intends us to be free, and assists us, and empowers us in the struggle for freedom. So the stories of our history helped me to understand that we were called to be activists in this struggle for justice. “
When looking at the significant work of her life, one must see the providence in the New Year’s Day arrival of an infant whose words would inspire America to dream a new dream.
And although Rev. Dr. Prathia Hall Wynn may have been uncredited in our textbooks, the impact of this undaunted woman and her unbound freedom-faith remains.