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Churches of the Civil Rights Movement

During the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s, black churches across the South served not only as places of worship and spiritual refuge, but also as much-needed meeting centers where activists and citizens alike could convene to share ideals, support the fight for equal rights and plan proactive resistance to the stifling status quo of Jim Crow-era segregation.

Thanks to their essential role in the fight for equality, black churches throughout the region — in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and beyond — have been enshrined as places of significance along the Civil Rights Trail.

Here, we share the stories of five African-American churches whose legacies will be forever linked with a movement that advanced both human rights and democracy for black Southerners  — changing America for the better in the process.

Springfield Baptist Church

Greenville, South Carolina

Founded in 1867 by former slaves — just four years after emancipation —Springfield Baptist Church is the oldest black Baptist congregation in Greenville, South Carolina.

“There were roughly 65 original members, many of them household servants of white members of Greenville’s First Baptist Church,” said the Rev. John H. Corbitt, who has served as pastor at Springfield Baptist for nearly 40 years. “They decided they wanted to have their own congregation and were able to organize originally in the basement of First Baptist.”

In 1872, Springfield Baptist Church acquired land to build its own worship space on McBee Avenue, where it stood until a fire destroyed the building in 1972. The congregation remains active but in a new facility roughly two blocks from the original building, which played a pivotal role in the civil right movement of Greenville.

“The local branch of the NAACP was organized at Springfield Baptist Church. The Greenville Urban League was organized here,” Corbitt said, noting that the church was led by pastor J.S. Hall (1957-1963) during much of the movement. Famed civil rights activist Jessie Jackson, a native of Greenville, was also a member of the congregation as a young man, Corbitt said.

Springfield found itself in the spotlight in January 1960 when it spearheaded a peaceful march from the church to the Greenville Downtown Airport to protest that baseball great Jackie Robinson, who had come to town to address a state NAACP convention, was denied access to the airport’s waiting room.

“Almost all of the civil rights activities in town would start at Springfield Baptist Church,” Corbitt said. “Marches to demonstrate at the lunch counter would start here. Marches to integrate the library would start here. This was the unofficial headquarters of the [Greenville] movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s.”

Bethel Baptist Church

Birmingham, Alabama

Birmingham’s Bethel Baptist Church was home to one the most prominent leaders of the civil rights movement: the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who served as pastor there from 1953 through 1961.

In 1956, Shuttlesworth formed the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights to fill the void when an injunction by the Alabama circuit courts outlawed NAACP activities in the state.

Shuttlesworth was also one of the key figures — along with King, Bayard Rustin, C.K Steele and Ralph Abernathy — behind the 1957 formation of SCLC. In 1961, Bethel Baptist Church served as a designated point of contact in Alabama for the Freedom Riders.

Because of Shuttlesworth’s activism, Bethel Baptist was the target of repeated bombings. A 1956 Christmas night blast rocked the church’s parsonage, with Shuttlesworth and his family inside. Miraculously, no one was hurt. The church was bombed again in 1958 and 1962.

“He told the congregation after the first bombing that if they wanted him to resign, he would, but that he would continue the fight,” said the Rev. Thomas L. Wilder Jr., current pastor of Bethel Baptist Church.

“We view Rev. Shuttlesworth as the architect of the modern civil rights movement,” said Martha Bouyer, executive director of the Historic Bethel Baptist Church. “He moved it from a one-item protest; mostly, to that point, it had been about the bus. He started to protest these unfair laws as related to schools, restaurants, trying on clothes at department stores, voting rights, access to government and police jobs. He addressed segregation at its very core, in all areas at the same time.”

Shuttlesworth traveled to sit-ins and boycotts throughout the South, bringing effective ideas for nonviolent protests back to Birmingham with him, Bouyer said. He also challenged many aspects of segregation in the court system.

“Rev. Shuttlesworth was slightly ahead of his time in understanding the full impact and power of civil disobedience,” said Alabama historian Richard Bailey.

“He was the one that invited Dr. King to Birmingham in 1963,” Bouyer said. The police brutality on display during the Birmingham Campaign, which was publicized nationwide, is credited with contributing to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Shuttlesworth’s more confrontational style was a contrast to King’s, but there was a mutual respect between them. In his memoir of the Birmingham Campaign, King praised Shuttlesworth’s “fiery words and determined zeal.”

“Dr. King said about Rev. Shuttlesworth that he brought a type of militancy to this whole issue of civil rights that hadn’t been there before,” Bouyer said.

The congregation now worships in a new sanctuary built in 1995. The original church building has been preserved as a monument to the civil rights movement, and in 2007, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Clark Memorial United Methodist Church

Nashville, Tennessee

Clark Memorial United Methodist Church provided a central meeting place for leaders of the civil rights movement in Nashville, Tennessee.

The church served as headquarters for the Nashville office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and its location near several Nashville universities brought a steady stream of young activists through its doors.

Noted activist James Lawson, a student at Vanderbilt University at the time of the civil rights movement, led workshops on nonviolent civil disobedience at the church. John Lewis, a college student who later became a national civil rights leader and longtime congressman from Georgia, was one of the attendees.

“The students involved in those meetings came from Vanderbilt University, Tennessee State University, Fisk University and American Baptist College,” said church historian Marilyn Talbert. “Rev. A.M. Anderson was the pastor at that time [1959-1965], and the students were having so many gatherings, he finally gave them a key [to the building].”

Founded originally in 1865 as a school and worship center for newly freed slaves, the current church building, built in 1981, sits on the same site where the congregation has worshiped since 1943.

“It’s important for people to understand the sacrifice and struggles that people went through in that particular era, just as it’s important to know something about the earlier [19th century] efforts of African-Americans to secure freedom and rights,” Talbert said. “As generations change, we need to know and preserve that history.”

Shiloh Baptist Church

Albany, Georgia

In 1961, Shiloh Baptist Church helped foster a broad, citywide civil rights initiative that became known as the Albany Movement.

“The role of Shiloh was very key,” said W. Frank Wilson, executive director of the Albany Civil Rights Institute. “When the movement started, there was a need for a place to have meetings, and the late Rev. H.G. Boyd opened the doors of Shiloh.”

Boyd had also made the church available to Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee workers who had come to Albany to work on voter registration, Wilson said.

In December 1961, Martin Luther King Jr. came to Albany to speak at the invitation of his friend, W.G. Anderson, who was president of the Albany Movement. The crowd to hear King overflowed both Shiloh Baptist and Mount Zion Church across the street, another “major player in the movement,” Wilson said, so much so that by the end of the evening, King had to make not just one, but three separate addresses, alternating between the churches, to accommodate the roughly 1,500 people who came.

“As a result, Dr. King ended up spending the night and leading a march, and was even arrested in Albany,” Wilson said.

Shiloh’s involvement in the movement did not come without danger: “Rev. Boyd would tell a story that one Sunday as he got up to give his sermon, an usher brought a note that said there was a bomb under the church. But he chose not to read it [to the congregation] because he felt that the note was intended to incite hysteria and panic,” Wilson said. “And his belief was, if he had to go, then there was no better place to go than in church.”

First Baptist Church

Montgomery, Alabama

On May 21, 1961, King spoke in a darkened sanctuary of Montgomery’s First Baptist Church. Gathered there was a group of roughly 1,500 Freedom Riders, church members and other civil rights activists who had taken refuge in the building following violence at the city’s Greyhound bus station. Outside, the Klan surrounded them. The nearly 15-hour standoff became known as “the siege of First Baptist.”

On that tense night, King and Abernathy, First Baptist Church’s pastor (1952-1961) and himself one of the civil rights movement’s leading national figures, found themselves on the phone with U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy asking for federal protection from the violent mob outside, which had begun to break windows and throw tear gas. Ultimately, National Guard troops were dispatched to safely lead the activists out of the church.

Earlier in the movement, the church had housed mass meetings to help organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Both the church and the parsonage were bombed in 1957, but Abernathy and his congregation persisted.

In 1957, the church hosted the first Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change, sponsored by SCLC. It was during a meeting at First Baptist Church in 1958 that civil rights leader Lewis, the youngest of the so-called Big Six leaders of the movement, initially met and befriended Abernathy and King.

“Ralph Abernathy and Dr. King partnered together in doing both the bus boycott as well as the Freedom Riders,” said the Rev. E. Baxter Morris, who has served as pastor of First Baptist Church since 1972. “Their pathways were always linked.”

Despite First Baptist’s active role in the 20th-century civil rights movement, Alabama historian Bailey said the church’s social activism dates back to its founding in 1866. Nathan Ashby, pastor of the church from 1866 to 1870, served as the first president of the Colored Baptist Convention of Alabama, and in 1890, the church hosted the first baccalaureate service of the State Normal School, now Alabama State University.

“The first civil rights bill to be introduced to the Alabama Legislature was submitted by a member of First Baptist Church in February 1873,” Bailey said.