The Rev. Clay Evans, founder of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, in 2000. | Chicago Sun-Times file photo
Rev. Clay Evans was “a prophet, a priest, and a pastor to both parishioners and pastors,” said U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush
The Rev. Clay Evans, a civil rights leader, influential evangelical broadcaster and gospel music icon, died Wednesday at 94.
His death was announced by Rev. Charles Jenkins, pastor of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, the house of worship Rev. Evans founded after being ordained a minister in 1950. He served the church for half a century.
“He will forever be known as a civil rights leader (who worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King and Reverend Jesse Jackson), gospel music pioneer, civic leader, community staple, and trusted counselor to all including presidents, governors, mayors, and anyone in need of advice,” Jenkins said in a Facebook post.
Rev. Evans was “responsible for launching the ministerial careers of ninety-three people, including Mother Consuella York, the first female to be ordained in the Baptist denomination in Chicago,” according to the website of the church at 4543 S. Princeton Ave.
In 1968 at his church, Rev. Evans ordained the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
“Today we stand in the wake of his life and his legacy … and express our thanks to him,” Jackson said at a news conference Wednesday. “There is a hole where our hearts used to be.”
Working with Jackson, the pastor helped form Operation PUSH, the HistoryMakers website said.
In some of the most heated days of the civil rights movement, Rev. Evans defied Mayor Richard J. Daley in welcoming the Rev. Martin Luther King to Chicago.
“When Dr. King decided to use Chicago as a northern expansion of the civil rights movement, Rev. Clay Evans had to endure some political fallout” for his support, said funeral director Spencer Leak Sr. “The word had gone out [from City Hall] that ministers should not invite Dr. King to their churches.”
Rev. Evans embraced him and worked with him, and as a result, it became difficult for him to get construction work done on his church, Leak said. Code violations were alleged, and “Building permits were very difficult to obtain because of his support for Dr. King,” he said.
In 1964, the pastor and Leak’s father, A.R. Leak, helped lead a march of thousands to desegregate racially divided Oak Woods Cemetery on the South Side.
Over the years, countless politicians visited his church to speak to the congregation and cultivate voters. In 1995, Daley’s son, Richard M. Daley, received key support when Rev. Evans backed his mayoral reelection bid over an African American candidate, Joseph E. Gardner.
Rev. Evans once told the HistoryMakers of his faith in the power of the Black Church. “Some of our greatest leaders, whether it be politicians, whether it be business people, or whether it be schoolteachers, theatrical people, come right from the church,” he said.
Further, “It has inspired people and kept us together, and gave us hope during slavery and all [kinds] of other problems that we’ve gone through,” he said in the interview. “If we could go to church and get our spiritual bearings, it helped us in all the other walks of life. It kept families together. Kept you from killing somebody.”
U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., joined in the condolences, calling him “a prophet, a priest, and a pastor to both parishioners and pastors.”
“Rev. Clay Evans was a religious and civil rights leader who called for the best in our humanity,” former Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a tweet. “When he spoke, his voice was heard in Chicago and echoed across America, and we are a better city and nation for it.”
He was born in Brownsville, Tennessee.
Gospel music broadcaster Bob Marovich recounted the pastor’s early days in Chicago in a biography Marovich wrote with Patty Nolan-Fitzgerald for Malaco Music Group.
“He migrated to Chicago in June 1945, at age 20, with plans to be an undertaker, but he could not afford the tuition fee to attend mortuary school,” said Marovich, author of “A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music.” “Instead, he worked at a pickle factory, as a window-washer, as a pie truck driver, then found work at the Brass Rail, a local lounge, and dreamed of a future as a big band singer.”
He sang with various church choirs and wrote gospel songs, including “By and By,” a 1950s hit for the Davis Sisters, according to Marovich, host of the Gospel Memories radio show on WLUW 88.7 FM. After founding his church, Rev. Evans performed on many of his choir’s records.
“Sam Cooke and other professional singers attended Fellowship to enjoy the choir and listen to Evans preach,” Marovich wrote.
The pastor began his broadcasting career in 1952, Marovich said. And he was founding president of the Broadcast Ministers’ Alliance of Chicago, according to his church.
Relatives said Rev. Evans is survived by his wife, Lutha Mae; his daughters Gail Claudette Pye and Faith Evans, and sons Michael and Ralph. Another daughter, Diane, died before Rev. Evans.
Jenkins said he is scheduled to lie in state from noon to 7 p.m. Dec. 6 at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, with a celebration of his life to follow. A visitation is planned from 9 to 10 a.m. Dec. 7, with another celebration to follow.
Contributing: Maudlyne Ihejirika, Rachel Hinton