For centuries, African American churches have been the backbone of the Black community. At one time, religious gatherings were held in homes and fields away from the white plantation slave masters that forbid such meetings. After the Civil War, freed Black people came together to build formal sanctuaries in the shadow of racism. Today, some of those structures still stand.
Likewise, African American churches have played an integral role in the civil rights movement. For decades, religious and civic icons and leaders have gone there to speak out against segregation, to organize with the community and to plan nonviolent protests. But perhaps most of all, the church has served as a safe place for spiritual and religious practice and connection, and as a shelter from the harsh realities of the outside world.
Here are five churches listed on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail that represent vital pillars to the African American community.
16th Street Baptist Church
In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church was “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.” On that day, bombs placed by the Ku Klux Klan injured more than 20 people and instantly cut short the lives of four young girls — Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carol Robertson and Cynthia Wesley — as they were preparing for the annual Youth Day program.
“It is important to teach our history to promote deep understanding of how cultural, social and societal values develop over time,” said Theodore Debro, chairman of the church’s board of trustees. “It is important to face our history to learn from past mistakes and to guide the development of the future. The events that took place at this location played a key role in placing a worldwide spotlight on the injustices taking place in the South and in spurring the passage of the Voting Rights Act.”
Although the bombing brought worldwide attention to the church, it’s the unwavering community connection and support since its founding in 1873 as the First Colored Church of Birmingham — originally located a few blocks away — that has sustained it.
The current modified Romanesque and Byzantine-style building and parsonage built in 1911 has hosted numerous Black activists and leaders, including Paul Robeson, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, King, and Mary McLeod Bethune, among others. Tours include a 15-minute documentary film, a docent-led walk through the impressive sanctuary and a visit to the Experience Room. Here visitors encounter first-person accounts of the bombing, as well as photos, artifacts and pews from the original sanctuary, and the clock that stopped at 10:22 a.m. the day of the bombing.
Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church and Parsonage
Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church and Parsonage have always been central to the civil rights movement. Completed in 1889 and still maintaining much of its original architecture, the church holds the distinction as the only house of worship pastored by King, the place from which he led the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott and the endpoint of the historic 1965 Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March.
“These events changed the world,” said Wanda Howard Battle, tour director at the church. “In the 1950s and ’60s, Dr. King and the people of the South made history by challenging the social, political and economic disparities and injustice based on racial bias. They marched, bled and died to change policies, laws and practices that denied human dignity and civil rights.”
These stories are told through tours of the still-active church that highlight King’s pastoral office and the podium he used to address the Selma-to-Montgomery marchers. There’s also a beautiful civil rights mural that takes visitors on a journey from Rosa Parks’ arrest to King’s assassination.
A fascinating, largely unknown fact is that former Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace, reviled by many for his decades-long staunch segregationist actions, atoned for his views during a visit here in 1979.
“He apologized to the congregation for his cruel acts of discrimination to enforce segregation,” Battle said. “This surprises most visitors and moves many to accept that like Wallace, every person can choose to change their beliefs and practices to be respectful, kind and just. When we embrace and model these practices, we ensure a place at the table of humanity for all people worldwide.”
Shiloh Baptist Church
Throughout the civil rights movement, many cities were fortunate to have been visited by King; in Albany, Georgia, he came to Shiloh Baptist Church. Here, he not only spoke to the congregation but also met with community leaders and activists from organizations including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Together they were successful in launching and coordinating several major campaigns against racism and segregation across the state and further afield.
“Shiloh Baptist Church was the epicenter of the Albany Movement,” said W. Frank Wilson, former executive director of the Albany Civil Rights Institute and vice chairman of deacon ministry at Shiloh Baptist Church. “The Albany Movement was key for King having success in Birmingham and other places, and was the catalyst for civil rights activity in Americus, Sylvester and other southwest Georgia locations.”
In addition to its place on the Civil Rights Trail, the historic building, which is still home to an active congregation, is also part of the Georgia Footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Trail. Tours of the sanctuary, which remains much as it was during the civil rights movement, can be arranged through the Albany Civil Rights Institute, located across the street.
Emanuel AME Church
Charleston, South Carolina
Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church has experienced more than its share of hardships: segregationist legislation, raids, vicious harassment, fire, the Civil War, an earthquake and a devastating hurricane. Yet it still stands today as the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the southern U.S. and the country’s first independent Black congregation.
Founded in 1816 in the Methodist tradition and associated with the nonsectarian Free African Society, the church still maintains much of its original Gothic Revival grandeur, with beautiful brick and wood, marble panels, eye-catching murals, original wooden pews, a massive pipe organ and an extensive library.
In addition to serving the African American community for over 200 years, the church has also hosted numerous notable Black leaders and civil rights movement icons. Among them was educator, author and orator Booker T. Washington; theologian, cultural historian, national civil rights leader and SCLC member Wyatt Tee Walker; and King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, both of whom came in the 1960s to encourage voter registration and to lead a crucial hospital workers strike.
In 2015, a white supremacist brutally murdered nine church members here, and a few years later the church became part of the Mother Emanuel Way Memorial District, created and named in honor of those fallen parishioners. The church, which is open for tours, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Purchased in 1949 from the Presbyterian Church and renamed in honor of a local AME bishop, Clayborn Temple has always been an integral part of Memphis’ Black community. This once-majestic Romanesque Revival church was a central location during one of the most important events in the history of the civil rights movement: the 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike. The strike was in response to the deaths of two sanitation workers who, after attempting to seek shelter from a torrential rainstorm inside a company office, were forced to wait it out in the back of their truck. The truck was struck by lightning, igniting the starter and crushing them to death.
Over a thousand people met, organized and marched from Clayborn Temple in the fight for equal working conditions and higher pay, their efforts memorialized in photographs and other media of the now famous “I Am a Man” signs they carried. King was scheduled to speak here; however, he was assassinated a few days before at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968.
The church, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is currently undergoing extensive renovations, and a projected opening date for its congregation and the visiting public has not yet been announced. Nevertheless, visitors can meander through the adjacent “I Am a Man Plaza” created to honor the striking sanitation workers and featuring a moving sculpture and wall filled with the names of those who participated in the ultimately successful strike.