CHICAGO — The Rev. Clay Evans, legendary gospel singer, choirmaster and celebrated Baptist minister who became a fast ally to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his effort to expose the slum conditions black Chicago residents endured, has died.
Evans linked King to other ministers interested in his Operation Breadbasket program, which sought to improve conditions for blacks and open jobs at all-white supermarket chains and bottling companies. “I try to embody the principles of Christianity, and for me that means being dedicated to freedom and equality,” Evans told a Chicago Tribune reporter in 1974.
Evans died Wednesday at his home on the city’s South Side, a spokeswoman for the retired pastor said. He was 94.
The Tennessee-born cleric gained national notoriety for his rousing sermons, energetic storytelling style performed on television with his choirs, and for helping to introduce black gospel music to the mainstream.
Evans’ music program began airing on Channel 38 in 1977. “Music was a gift that he had, and he was committed to inspire … and share the good news with people,” said the Rev. Charles Jenkins, current pastor of Evans’ Fellowship church, who plans to step down at the end of this year.
But it was Evans’ role as a champion for civil rights and a mentor to other black clergy where he was most integral, his supporters said. Ordained a Baptist minister in 1950, Evans was both a leader and behind-the-scenes player who helped launch the ministerial careers of many up-and-coming ministers who would make an impact, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Consuella York, the first African American woman to be ordained into the clergy in Chicago by her denomination.
It was Evans’ work with Jackson and King that set the stage for his work that blended ministry with community activism, particularly aimed at Chicago’s political machine, which long excluded or ignored African American concerns. Some of the work done by Evans’ community action forced white-owned companies to open jobs closed to African Americans. His work with Jackson, and later the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, was believed to have opened thousands of jobs for black workers, according to the King Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.
Evans’ support for King was integral in helping the famed Atlanta preacher get a foothold in Chicago, where he planned to launch his Chicago Freedom Movement to reveal the unfair conditions black residents suffered.
But that early support for King, who famously launched the Montgomery bus boycott, came at a cost, as some bitterly opposed King for being an outsider or a threat to their white political support, according to Zach Mills’ 2018 book, “The Last Blues Preacher: Reverend Clay Evans, Black Lives, and the Faith That Woke the Nation.”
In one tense encounter that became legend, according to the book, Evans was among several ministers present when an anti-King pastor pulled out a gun after Evans pressed for a vote on King’s Breadbasket initiative. More personally, Evans faced ridicule for supporting King and claimed that as payback, construction of a new church building was halted for seven years.
Jenkins said the memories of that dark time survived in his mentor’s mind for years, though it strengthened his resolve. “He said it was very painful. At times, it was very lonely,” Jenkins said. Evans even recalled his foes taunting him by pointing and laughing at his building’s shell.
“You’ve got to be willing to stand for something. It may cause you some discomfort, but you have to be willing to stand by principles, by precept and example,” Jenkins said of Evans. “He would say be bold as a lion but as humble as a lamb, and know that at moments when you face adversity, be strong.”
In his later years, Evans was an ally of Mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel, while counseling Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and serving on numerous community boards.
Born in Brownsville, Tenn., in 1925 to a large churchgoing family, Evans moved with his family to Chicago in 1945 with designs to be an undertaker, according to Robert M. Marovich’s book, “A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music.”
He retired from active ministry at the Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in 2000.
Following his retirement, he donated church papers, photos and music material to the Chicago Public Library for a special collection housed at the Harold Washington Library. In 2006, he released his last gospel album, titled “It’s Me Again.”
In addition to his wife, Evans is survived by five children, several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A daughter preceded him in death. His Fellowship church will host visitation and funeral services on Dec. 6 and 7.