New York — The last of the black preachers who came up in the era of Martin Luther King Jr. are nearing retirement, giving way to a generation who learned about the civil rights movement instead of living through it.
It's a transition that carries challenges and opportunities for pastors and churches committed to continuing the social justice work of the previous generation.
"If you have an institution that is constituted around a dynamic, charismatic personality, can it continue to exist when that person steps down?" asked Melissa Harris-Lacewell, associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University.
For the Rev. Thomas Johnson Jr., preaching a social justice gospel is still viable and necessary - even without King and his compatriots.
"God is always raising up a voice or voices to speak to the needs of the present day," said Johnson, installed less than a year ago at Harlem's Canaan Baptist Church of Christ. What's important, he said, is to follow the example that King and others set of working for justice.
The new generation definitely has its work cut out in terms of reaching people who may be paying more attention to today's prosperity gospel, which focuses more on personal health and well-being.
"I think there's an enormous social justice gospel education agenda that faces this generation that succeeds some of the towering figures in the black pulpit," said Robert Franklin, professor of social ethics at Emory University.
A new generation of leadership also could provide an opportunity, a way to make the struggle for civil rights more relevant and not something that ended decades ago, Harris-Lacewell said.
"I think it's potentially really healthy for us to move away from imagining that the social gospel theologically or the civil rights movement politically started with or ended with Martin Luther King," she said.
"It might actually be good to move into a new generation that has to make claims and arguments for civil rights that are not rooted in a movement that's 40 years old."