Churches were at the very heart of the black community in the segregated South, and they became a mainstay of the civil rights movement. It was in churches that people met to discuss desegregation, to strategize and plan. It was where they gathered before marches, protests and sit-ins. It was where religious and community leaders, speaking from pulpits, inspired their congregants to act.
Churches organized and provided a network of station wagons, or “rolling churches,” as alternative transportation during the Montgomery bus boycott. Church leaders formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Activists gathered to begin their march for voting rights in a church.
And even when those churches and their congregations were targets of hate and unspeakable violence, the community remained a source of strength for the civil rights movement. Here are some of the pivotal places of worship recognized on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail.
New Zion Baptist Church
New Orleans, Louisiana
In January 1957 in Atlanta, a group of Baptist pastors and activists founded what would become the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the group was officially incorporated a month later in New Orleans. On Valentine’s Day, religious and community leaders gathered at New Zion Baptist Church on the corner of Third and Lasalle streets to sign the forms that made the organization official and established an executive board of directors, which included Martin Luther King Jr. as president.
Now, visitors to New Zion Baptist Church have more to explore than the plaque mounted on the side of the church. In January 2019, the SCLC Memorial Walkway Pavilion opened to the public across the street from New Zion.
“The average New Orleanian not from that neighborhood has no idea that the SCLC was formed at the church,” said Cole Halpern, president and interim executive director of Felicity Redevelopment, a nonprofit that works to combat blight and promote redevelopment in the Central City neighborhood.
Grover Mouton, head of the Tulane Regional Urban Design Center, wanted to change that, so the center partnered with Felicity several years ago to design and develop the pavilion as part memorial, part educational site, part public gathering area. The covered, open-air pavilion includes a walkway that features cutouts of nine of the original SCLC founders as well as a mural by a local artist.
Ebenezer Baptist Church
King grew up in the pews of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where his father was pastor. He was baptized there as a baby, and his funeral was held there after his assassination in 1968. Between the bookends of King’s remarkable life, the church was the setting of some of his most significant sermons and personal milestones.
King delivered his first sermon at the church’s pulpit in 1947, and the congregation voted to license him as a minister shortly afterward. He was ordained in February 1948.
King joined his father as co-pastor at Ebenezer in November 1959 in a move to be closer to the Atlanta headquarters of the SCLC.
The church is part of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, and in 2001, the National Park Service began a two-phase restoration of the 1922 brick church located in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood. Work included structural repairs and updated infrastructure. But the project also restored the appearance of the Heritage Sanctuary and fellowship hall to the years when King served as co-pastor with his father — from 1960 to 1968 — including preserving stained-glass windows and restoring the pipe organ. A new 1,700-seat church building called Horizon Sanctuary was completed on the site in 1999.
The congregation welcomes visitors every Sunday both in person and online through its virtual Ebenezer Everywhere, and Heritage Sanctuary is open for tours daily.
Mason Temple Church of God in Christ
Much has been said about King’s final — some say prophetic — speech, which he delivered April 3, 1968, at Mason Temple Church of God in Christ in Memphis, Tennessee. He delivered the speech, which he wasn’t even scheduled to give, the night before his assassination on the balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel.
During the address, King said, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
Mason Temple was built between 1940 and 1945 as the centerpiece of the six-building campus that serves as the denomination’s headquarters. The massive building acted as a hub of civil rights activities in the 1950s and 1960s. King wasn’t scheduled to speak on the night of April 3, 1968, but when the crowd demanded to hear him, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, who was supposed to speak, called King at the motel and asked him to come address the crowd.
Brown Chapel AME Church
Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Alabama, both the building and its congregants, played integral roles in the marches that led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The 1908 brick building, with its two white-domed towers and intricate facade, was the starting point for the Selma-to-Montgomery marches. On the morning of March 7, 1965, known as Bloody Sunday, about 600 protesters gathered at Brown Chapel in defiance of the governor’s ban on protest marches to walk to the state capital of Montgomery. At the Edmund Pettus Bridge six blocks away, troopers and deputies beat the nonviolent protesters with billy clubs, bullwhips and barbed-wire-wrapped tubing.
Today, Brown Chapel welcomes visitors, especially the Sunday during the city’s annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee, held the first weekend of March. It’s standing-room only during the festival, so the church places large screens, speakers and chairs outside to allow people to hear the sermon. Throughout the rest of the year, groups can also arrange guided tours through the church’s tour coordinator.
The Selma and Dallas County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Information bureau also works with two women who were students when they participated in the movement and now are licensed tour guides, said executive director Sheryl Smedley. Because protesters organized and marched from the church to the bridge, tours typically start at Brown Chapel and include the bridge and the Selma Interpretive Center.
Historic Liberty Hill AME Church
Summerton, South Carolina
Liberty Hill AME Church in Summerton, South Carolina, was founded in 1867, only four years after emancipation and two years after the end of the American Civil War. But it was what happened inside in the 1940s and 1950s that contributed to the American civil rights movement.
Meetings held at Liberty Hill church during those years led to local court cases that helped bring about the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 ruling that desegregated public schools.
People began meeting in the church in the late 1940s to discuss desegregation. As a result of those meetings, some 20 plaintiffs signed a petition asking Clarendon County School District No. 22 to provide schools for black students that were equal to white-only schools, equipped with heat, electricity, running water, proper furniture and books.
The superintendent denied the petition. In 1950, a case known as Briggs v. Elliott was filed in Clarendon County with the argument that as long as schools remained segregated, education for black students would remain inferior. When the three-judge panel ruled against the plaintiffs, the case was appealed to the Supreme Court. Briggs v. Elliott became the first of five cases that together formed the Brown v. Board of Education case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional.