BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) – Life for the Black Church in America, to borrow a line from Langston Hughes’ poem “Mother to Son”, “there have been no crystal stairs”.
In the poem, the mother asks her son to keep climbing those stairs and not give up, even though he will encounter nails and chips along the way. The black church has been that mother for black people in America since Reconstruction.
This Black History Month, with its theme of Black health and well-being, offers an opportunity to reflect on what the Black Church has meant for the well-being of generations of African Americans. as an institution.
The Alabama African American Civil Rights Heritage Sites Consortium was created to preserve this history. Priscilla Hancock Cooper, executive director of the consortium, said that “scholars and scholars who have written about the Black Church have recognized its role as the primary economic, social-civic and cultural leader in the community. Catalyst for change and self-determination. Many of our churches were established just during Reconstruction or at the very beginning of the 21st century, so they fulfilled this role at a time when the African American community was under siege. Victim not only of segregation but of this virulent violence.
Some of America’s most iconic black churches have survived unimaginable atrocities. On September 15, 1963, members of the Ku Klux Klan planted a bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing Carole Robertson, Denise McNair, Cynthia Morris Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, as well as seriously injuring Sarah Collins Rudolph.
Half a century later, a white supremacist shot and killed nine people during a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, better known as “Mother Emanuel,” in South Carolina on June 17, 2015. The shooting occurred as they closed the study with a prayer and the man, who had attended the entire Bible study, opened fire. Pastor Clemente Pinckney, a state senator from South Carolina, was among the victims. The church was specifically targeted because of its importance to black people in America for 200 years.
The Alabama African American Civil Rights Heritage Sites Consortium is made up of 20 sites of similar historical significance, stretching from Birmingham to Montgomery and Selma. The list includes iconic places of worship like 16th Street Baptist Church, Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, Brown Chapel AME and Bethel Baptist. But there are other places on the site that were just as important in the fight for freedom, though they may not be as well known.
“They couldn’t have done this work without many partners, without St. Paul AME, which is right across the Sixteenth Street parking lot, where students were trained and prepared to participate in demonstrations,” said said Hancock Cooper. “Like the First Colored Baptist Church in Selma, where SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) workers are committed to preparing people to be able to register to vote. And, like Trinity Lutheran Church, where the parsonage is actually the site that is part of the Consortium. A Lutheran church that brought in a white pastor to lead a black congregation. This pastor became very involved in the Montgomery Association working with Dr. King and others. And, because of his activism in the Montgomery Bus Boycott Movement, the parsonage was bombed. No member of his family was injured.
The historic Wales Window stained glass window in 16th Street Baptist Church, with its image of a black Christ figure as a suffering servant, shows how beauty can come from the ashes. The church stands proudly on the same corner it has occupied in Birmingham for over 150 years, but it’s ‘life has not been a crystal staircase’.
Arthur Price, a 16th Street Baptist pastor who has led the church for 20 years, said that historically the church was much more than a place of worship in Birmingham. The church originally had a different name and location when it was founded in 1873, ten years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
“A group of African Americans wanted to organize a church where they could feel empowered. So they organized the first Baptist church for colored people. This church was on 4th Avenue and 12th Street, (it was) condemned by the city,” Price said. “This church, they then moved here (16th Street and 6th Avenue North) in 1880. And it’s actually the second building on this site, the first building was condemned at the turn of the 20th century, because they said that the steeple was over Birmingham code and they said tear it down and they did.
The current church was designed and built by Wallace Rayfield. 16th Street Baptist Church has become known as “Everyone’s Church”.
Price said “it was the soul, it was the pulse of the community, everything you wanted to know about the community came from the black church.” For example, the first black bank in Alabama, Penny Savings and Loan, was founded by Reverend William Pettiford, the third pastor of the 16th Street Baptist Church.
The church was home to the likes of WEB Dubois, Booker T. Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune, Paul Roberson, Marion Anderson, Jackie Roberson and, of course, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. during the height of the civil rights movement.
The church was not originally as vocal in the civil rights movement, but that changed in 1963. The Children’s Crusades in 1963 were started down the stairs of the 16th Street Baptist Church, just across from Kelly Ingram Park. The televised brutality of fire hoses and unleashed dogs on protesters would break the back of Jim Crow segregation and lead to the Civil Rights Act.
The higher profile the church played in the Birmingham countryside under the leadership of the King and the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, of nearby Bethel Baptist, set a target on the church which led to the bombing in 1963.
Price said: “When you think of Mother Emanuel and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, it took 14 years before the first perpetrator was brought to justice for the Baptist Church bombing. sixteenth street. It took 14 hours to capture Dylan Roof. The whole Black Lives Matter movement. You can go back to 1963 with the four little girls and through this continued case, it sent a message to the world that these black lives matter. Because the case was closed in 1967-68 by the FBI, but then reopened by Attorney General Bill Baxley to let the world know that what happened here in September 1963, that those black lives mattered. And I think that sends a powerful message and every time we pursue a case of injustice against black lives, it says those back lives matter.
The church has a museum and daily tours to tell its story to visitors who come from all over the world to learn about its role in the nonviolent struggle for civil rights and what it has meant to the people of the church. ‘Alabama and all over the country. .
Price said the church benefits from its membership in the Alabama Consortium of African-American Civil Rights Heritage Sites.
“It’s been great,” Price said. “We’ve been able to collaborate with other civil rights sites, and we can also learn about their story, to elevate their story. Also being able to share how we’ve spread our story and how great it is important to tell the story.
The history of the black church and how it has contributed to the health and well-being of black people in America can be summed up in the words of Clara Ward’s song performed by Mahalia Jackson during the March on Washington, “How I overcame? You know, my soul looks back and wonders how I made it.
Reverend Albert Paul Brinson, associate general secretary at the retreat of the American Baptist Churches in the United States, said, “It was all we had, it was our strength, it sustained us. Brinson grew up with King, who was 10 years older. and a father figure for Brinson. He saw the role the church played in organizing people and preparing them spiritually, mentally, and physically for a nonviolent movement that uplifted not just black people but the nation. Brinson said, “Black people don’t go to churches in droves anymore. You can go to some of our major historic churches and, remember, I’ve worked with thousands of churches, and that’s a different kind of thing.
Priscilla Hancock Cooper points to a cause why black churches have smaller congregations, “these churches were hubs of community.” She said that “as these communities were devastated by urban renewal and a national trend of placing super highways and having them destroy black communities, the neighborhoods that supported them were decimated. So now we have the challenge of how do we continue to play this role of soul, moral compass, place of refuge, support and strength at a time when communities themselves have changed so much? »
Cooper said they hope that by preserving the sites of the Alabama African-American Civil Rights Heritage Sites Consortium, they can “help reclaim their catalytic role within the community. They can, in fact, be a very important tool for this revitalization and rebirth.
Brinson emphasized the power of the church, which he says is the gospel.
“That was the main thing and it needs to be now,” Brinson said. “The strength, the power, the message and the hope of the church is not diminished, we could diminish it, but the message of the church and of Jesus Christ is still the same.”
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