She Had the Dream: The Freedom Faith of Prathia Hall
By Rev. Dr. Courtney Pace
Prathia Hall (1940–2002), civil rights activist, preacher, and professor, was a preacher’s kid from Philadelphia who learned social gospel ministry from her father, the Rev. Berkeley Hall. She found her voice through church programs, debate competitions, and community support. While in college, she joined an ecumenical social justice organization, Fellowship House, where she learned nonviolent resistance. After graduating from Temple University, Hall went to the South to join the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in southwest Georgia.
Hall was one of the few female field workers in SNCC. Because of the immense danger of door-to-door voter registration, women typically worked either in “freedom schools” (educational programs to help potential voters pass registration tests) or as secretaries. Hall, however, was second-in-command of SNCC’s Southwest Georgia Project in Albany, Georgia, led by Charles Sherrod. The people of Albany and the surrounding communities respected her, and she offered excellent leadership to new SNCC workers, particularly related to safety in the racial environment of the rural South. She also recognized the profound wisdom of the people they encountered, deepening her understanding of freedom faith — not only as a theological concept but as an embodied commitment of trusting God amid danger and persisting anyway to fight for life. While SNCC workers had important information about voter registration and political rights, the people in the counties where SNCC worked had what Hall called the “wisdom of the ages,” the inherited freedom faith that empowered them to survive enslavement, Jim Crow laws, and systemic oppression.
During a 1962 prayer service at Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Sasser, Georgia, after the burning of four Black churches in Terrell County affiliated with the movement, Hall used the phrase “I have a dream.” The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was at that service, and he secured Hall’s permission to use “I have a dream” in his own speeches as they later rode together to the airport. Having known her from Fellowship House while he was in seminary, King so esteemed Hall that he described her as “the one platform speaker I would prefer not to follow.”
Hall and King often spoke together at fundraising events and both spoke at an event in Chicago the night before the March on Washington, which Hall watched from the hotel television because she could not get to Washington, D.C., for the event.
By 1963, Hall led SNCC’s voter registration project in Selma, Alabama. By the end of the year, SNCC leader Jim Forman called her to Atlanta to run civil rights collaboration between six organizations to desegregate Atlanta. Hall confronted Atlanta mayor Ivan Allen on multiple occasions and was arrested in a Toddle House sit-in during Kenyan leader Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s 1963 visit to the United States. Her case became a showdown between local and federal courts, making national headlines when she was released in March of 1964.
Hall was included in a very short list of SNCC leaders who traveled to Africa in 1964 upon invitation by the Guinean government. Major civil rights leaders, including James Lawson, Wyatt Tee Walker, and John Lewis, had tremendous respect for Hall’s commitment to and leadership in the movement, and they affirmed her influence not only on SNCC’s work but on King, too. Hall described her time in the movement as the best education she ever received. She continued raising money for civil rights work in the South and expanded her activism to include education, women’s job placement, and community resources.
Hall went to the South, in part, to run from her call to preach, which by the 1970s, she could no longer escape. She was one of the first Black Baptist women ordained by the American Baptist Churches of the U.S.A. (1977), was the first woman accepted into the Baptist Minister Conference of Philadelphia and Vicinity (1982), completed her M.Div. and Ph.D. (1997) degrees at Princeton Theological Seminary, and became a well-respected professor of Christian ethics, womanist theology, and Black religious history.
Throughout these endeavors, Hall not only continued commuting to Philadelphia to pastor Mt. Sharon Baptist Church, which her father founded and pastored, but she also preached across the country and worked in hybrid academic positions while finishing her degree. She held numerous faculty and administrative positions at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio (1989–1998), and she held the Martin Luther King Jr. Chair in Social Ethics at Boston University School of Theology (2000–2002). In 1997, Ebony magazine named her first in its list of “15 Greatest Black Women Preachers,” and she was the only woman considered for its list of “10 Greatest Black Preachers,” ultimately placing eleventh. In 1999, the International Theological Center in Atlanta awarded her its annual Womanist Scholar Award.
Hall’s pastoral career was shaped by her prophetic womanist homiletic. She centered women’s narratives in the text and emphasized a liberating, Christocentric perspective. Rejecting patriarchy, she used the Biblical text to demonstrate equality, justice, and the necessity of Christian commitment to liberation. Her preaching demonstrated that salvation is not merely the deliverance from personal sin but necessitates dismantling systemic oppression, bridging personal faith and social justice, and calling Black churches to remember their heritage as mediators of the people’s struggles for liberation and justice and to honor that heritage in their ministries.
Hall’s freedom faith inspired her to pursue justice from a young age through education, civil rights activism, community organizing, and ministry. Her preaching insisted that anyone who claimed the Gospel must join in the work of liberation. Hall’s womanism valued all people regardless of race, gender, or class, and she sought the equality and liberation of all people. She inspired hundreds of students and challenged them to continue the legacy of their Christian and Black heritage in their ministries.
Hall’s freedom faith — the belief that God wants everyone to be free and equips and sustains those who work for freedom — was the central idea of her womanist vision, communicated through her theology and preaching. As churches continue their historical legacy of mediating the struggles of the people for freedom and liberation, and as all people of faith work together against oppression and injustice, freedom faith lives.
The Rev. Dr. Courtney Pace is the Prathia Hall Scholar in Residence of Social Justice History at Equity for Women in the Church. She is the author of Freedom Faith: The Womanist Vision of Prathia Hall, which is available from the University of Georgia Press and local booksellers. She is also a BJC Fellow.