Some people looked at Christianity as a White man’s religion because of the overall lack of support by the White Evangelical community during the Civil Rights Movement. That sentiment was backed up by the fact that if you picked up any type of Christian publication, picture book, or anything at all that had to do with Christianity, the people in it were White. Melvin E. Banks, who worked at Scripture Press at the time, felt called to change that Eurocentric narrative when he founded UMI (Urban Ministries, Inc.).
Back in 1970, Black consciousness was at its peak.
“We needed images of Blacks on publications so that young people could see that there are people who believe in the faith and who are involved in doing things and that there always has been,” said Stanley Long, who is on UMI’s Board of Directors and was there with Banks from the very beginning, encouraging him along the way. “What Mel did was come up with a way in which we could respond and at the same time answer the challenges and have some kind of impact on the community both psychologically as well as historically and spiritually.”
UMI is now one of the largest African American owned media firms in the country with millions in sales and over 250 employees and contractors. The corporate headquarters, based in Calumet City, is a 50,000-square-foot facility built in the mid-90s and the company has served over 50,000 churches nationally and internationally since its founding. UMI also has grown to serve as a publishing partner for over a dozen African American denominations. Banks’ success was recently honored by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA), which awarded him with the Kenneth N. Taylor Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his “pioneering work in innovation, diversification, and contextualization of Christian education materials.”
“I would load up my trunk and go from city to city and in that way we were able to get the word out that we had a new product that we believed could help churches because it was speaking to the issues. We included African American young people as photographs in the publication. For the first time, they were gaining a sense of esteem by seeing themselves portrayed in the publication,” said Banks.
But those early years were difficult. Banks struggled financially for years to keep the company afloat. Initially, he was able to garner seed money from early investors, but it really wasn’t as much as he needed to keep things going over the long term.
“One of the reasons why I admire Mel is that he didn’t give up. Because I think that I would have and I think any normal person would have. But Mel would just not give up,” said Long. “He just stayed with it and I think if you were to ask, ‘Why didn’t you quit?’ He would probably say, because he really felt it was what God told him to do. This was his mission. And he engaged his wife and his children and they all worked together, trying to keep it going. But it was very difficult in those very early years.”
Because he didn’t give up, today, those images are on publications for all age levels, websites, apps, videos, documentaries and more. The company has partnered with major corporate giants like Sony and McDonald’s, as well as well-known Christian names like T.D. Jakes and Mark Barnett and Roma Downey’s “The Bible” miniseries.
“The work of Dr. Banks and UMI, with unique publications distributed in the millions around the country and around the world, has changed our lives and touched our community like no other company has,” said Jeff Wright, CEO of UMI.
Banks was born in Birmingham, Ala., and at the age of 12 was inspired by a man who quoted Hosea 4:6, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” God used that verse to lead him to make a commitment that his life should be dedicated to sharing God’s knowledge with God’s people. In 1955, he graduated from Moody Bible Institute and married Olive Perkins. He went on to attend Wheaton College, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in Theology and a Master of Arts in Biblical Studies. He was later awarded an honorary doctorate by Wheaton College and served for many years as a board member of this institution.
“Sometimes people ask me, ‘Mel what was your secret in bringing UMI to where it is today?’ And in a real sense it’s really not a secret. It’s finding a cause that’s worth giving your life to, and once you identified whatever abilities God has given you, to stick with it. There are good days and bad days. Things go well. Things don’t always go well, but when there is that commitment to complete the job that you’re convinced God gave you, looking to him and getting the encouragement from him and from others, that’s sort of been the way that God had led us,” said Banks.