Father Divine: Charismatic cult leader or civil rights pioneer?

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American-African spiritual leader Father Divine smiles as he leads a parade of his followers from Harlem to the docks in New York, on Aug. 20, 1936, to board the paddle-steamer City of Kennsburg to take them on the first stage of their great trek to their new camp in Ulster County, New York State. (AP Photo)

American-African spiritual leader Father Divine smiles as he leads a parade of his followers from Harlem to the docks in New York, on Aug. 20, 1936, to board the paddle-steamer City of Kennsburg to take them on the first stage of their great trek to their new camp in Ulster County, New York State. (AP Photo)

If you’ve ever walked by the old Divine Lorraine Hotel on North Broad Street in Philadelphia and wondered about its past, you’re in for a good story. The building’s former owner, a man known simply as Father Divine, declared himself God and amassed an international following that some consider a cult. Members of his congregation promised a life of celibacy and surrendered their possessions to him. But he also preached about equality and pushed for racial integration as early as the 1930s in unconventional ways. On this episode of The Why, Lenny Feinberg, director of the documentary “Father’s Kingdom” joins us to explain why some remember Father Divine as a charismatic cult leader and others, as a civil rights pioneer.

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