BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Life for the Black church in America, to borrow a line from Langston Hughes’ poem “Mother to Son,” “ain’t been no crystal stair.”
In the poem, the mother wills her son to keep climbing those stairs and not give up, even though he’ll encounter nails and splinters along the way. The Black church has been that mother to Blacks in America since Reconstruction.
This Black History Month, with its theme of Black health and wellness, presents an opportunity to look back at what the Black church has meant to the wellness of generations of African Americans as an institution.
The Alabama African American Civil Rights Heritage Sites Consortium was created to preserve that history. Priscilla Hancock Cooper, executive director of the consortium, said “scholars and researchers who have written about the Black church have acknowledged its role as a primary economic, social-civic leader, cultural leader in the community. A catalyst for a change and for self determination. Many of our churches were established right during Reconstruction or at the very beginning of the 21st century, so they were playing this role at a time when the African American community was under siege. The victim of not only segregation but this virulent violence.”
Some of the most iconic Black churches in the United States 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 severely injured Sarah Collins Rudolph.
Half a century later, a white supremacist gunned down nine people during a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, better known as “Mother Emanuel,” in South Carolina on June 17, 2015. The shooting happened as they closed the study with a prayer and the man, who had sat through the entire Bible study, opened fire. Pastor Clemente Pinckney, a South Carolina State Senator, was among the victims. The church was specifically targeted because of its significance to Blacks in America for 200 years.
The Alabama African American Civil Rights Heritage Sites Consortium is made up of 20 sites with similar historic 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 locations on the site that were just as significant in the struggle for freedom, although they may not be as widely known.
“They could not have done this work without many of the partners, without St. Paul AME, which is right across the parking lot from Sixteenth Street, where students were trained and prepared to participate in demonstrations,“ Hancock Cooper said. “Like First Colored Baptist Church in Selma, where SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) workers engaged in 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 which brought in a white pastor to lead a Black congregation. That pastor became very involved in the Montgomery Association working with Dr. King and others. And, because of his activism within the Montgomery Bus Boycott Movement, the parsonage was bombed. None of his family was harmed.”
The historic stained glass Wales Window at 16th Street Baptist Church, with its image depicting a Black Christ figure as the suffering servant, shows how beauty can come from ashes. The church stands tall on the same corner that it has occupied in Birmingham for over 150 years, but it’s “life ain’t been no crystal stair.”
Arthur Price, pastor at 16th Street Baptist who has led the church for the last 20 years, said that historically, the church has been much more than a place of worship in Birmingham. Originally, the church had a different name and location at the time of its founding in 1873, ten years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
“A group of African Americans wanted to organize a church where they could feel that they were affirmed. So, they organized the First Baptist Church for Colored People. That church was on 4th Avenue and 12th street, (it was) condemned by the city,” Price said. “That church they later moved here (16th Street and 6th Avenue North) in 1880. And this is actually the second building on this site, the first building was condemned at the turn of the 20th century, because they said the steeple exceeded the code of Birmingham and they said to tear it down and they did.”
The current church was designed and built by Wallace Rayfield. The 16th Street Baptist Church became known as “everybody’s church.”
Price said “it was the soul being, it was the pulse of the community, everything you wanted to know about the community emanated out of the Black church.” For example, the first Black bank in Alabama, Penny Savings and Loan, was founded by Rev. William Pettiford, the third pastor of 16th Street Baptist Church.
The church hosted to the likes of W.E.B. Dubois, Booker T. Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune, Paul Roberson, Marion Anderson, Jackie Roberson and, of course, Rev. 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 by 1963. The Children’s Crusades in 1963 were launched down the stairs of 16th Street Baptist Church, right across the street to Kelly Ingram Park. The televised brutality of fire hoses and dogs unleashed on protestors would break the back of Jim Crow segregation and lead to the the Civil Rights Act.
The higher profile the church played in the Birmingham campaign under the leadership of King and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, from nearby Bethel Baptist, placed a target on the church that led to the bombing in 1963.
Price said “when you think of Mother Emanuel and Sixteenth St. Baptist Church, it took 14 years before the first perpetrator was brought to justice for the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing. 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 by that case being prosecuted it sent a message to the world that those Black lives mattered. 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 prosecute 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 around the world to learn about its role in the non-violent struggle for civil rights, and what it has meant to the people in Alabama and across the country.
Price said the church benefits from being part of the Alabama African American Civil Rights Heritage Sites Consortium.
“It’s been great,” Price said. “We’ve been able to collaborate with other civil rights sites, and we can learn about their history as well, to lift up their story. Also be able to share how we got our story out there and to tell how important it is to tell the story.”
The story of the Black church and how it has contributed to the health and wellness of Blacks in America can be summed up in the words of the Clara Ward song performed by Mahalia Jackson at the March on Washington, “How I got over? You know my soul look back and wonder how I made it over.”
Rev. Albert Paul Brinson, retired associate general secretary for American Baptist Churches USA, said “that was all we had, that was our strength it propped us up.” Brinson grew up with King, who was 10 years older. and a father figure to Brinson. He saw the role the church played in organizing people and preparing them spiritually, mentally, and physically for a non-violent movement that uplifted not only Blacks but the nation. Brinson said “Black people aren’t going to the churches en masse now. You can go to some of our leading historical churches and, remember I worked with thousands of churches, and it’s a different kind of thing.”
Priscilla Hancock Cooper points to one cause that Black churches have smaller congregations, “these churches were hubs of the community.” She said “as those communities were devastated by urban renewal and a national trend to place super highways and have them destroy black communities, the neighborhoods that supported them were decimated. So, now we have a challenge of how do we continue in that role as the soul, as the moral compass, as the place of refuge and support and strength in this era when the communities themselves have changed so much?”
Cooper said they hope that by preserving the sites in the Alabama African American Civil Rights Heritage Sites Consortium, they can “help reclaim their role as a catalyst within the community. They can, in fact, be a very significant tool for that revitalization and rebirth.”
Brinson pointed back to the power of the church, which he said is the Gospel.
“That was the main thing and it needs to be now,” Brinson said. “The force and power and message and hope from the church is not diminished, we might diminish it, but the message from church and Jesus Christ is still the same.”