Parting the Waters

America in the King Years, 1954-63

by Taylor Branch

Paperback, 1064 pages, Simon & Schuster, List Price: $22 | purchase

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Title
Parting the Waters
Subtitle
America in the King Years, 1954-63
Author
Taylor Branch

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Book Summary

Traces the birth of the American civil rights movement and profiles Martin Luther King, Jr., detailing the roles played by key figures around him and in government.

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Excerpt: Parting The Waters

From Chapter One

Nearly seven hundred Negro communicants, some wearing white robes, marched together in the exodus of 1867. They followed the white preacher out of the First Baptist Church and north through town to Columbus Street, then east up the muddy hill to Ripley Street. There on that empty site, the congregation declared itself the First Baptist Church (Colored), with appropriate prayers and ceremonies, and a former slave named Nathan Ashby became the first minister of an independent Negro Baptist church in Montgomery, Alabama.

Most local whites considered the separation a bargain, given the general state of turmoil and numb destitution after the war. Governor Robert M. Patton and the new legislature, in a wild gamble based on Andrew Johnson's friendliness toward prominent ex-Confederates, openly repudiated the Fourteenth Amendment's recognition of Negro citizenship rights, only to have a Union brigadier walk into the Montgomery capitol to declare that he was superseding the state government again until its officials saw fit to reconsider. White spirits fell; Negro spirits soared. The town's population had swelled to fourteen thousand, with Negroes outnumbering whites three to one. Refugees of both races were fleeing the crop failures and foreclosures in the countryside and streaming into Montgomery, where they often lived in clumps on the streets and entertained themselves by watching the outdoor sheriff's sales.

Under such conditions, and with the U.S. Congress threatening a new Fifteenth Amendment to establish the right of Negroes to vote and govern, most whites were of no mind to dispute the Negro right to religion. Many were only too happy to clear the throngs from the church basement, even if it meant that their previous items of property would be conducting their own church business at the corner of Columbus and Ripley—offering motions, debating, forming committees, voting, hiring and firing preachers, contributing pennies, bricks, and labor to make pews and windows rise into the first free Negro institution. The Negro church legal in some respects before the Negro family, became more solvent than the local undertaker.

Ten years later, a dissident faction of the First Baptist Church (Colored) marched away in a second exodus that would forever stamp the characters of the two churches. Both sides would do their best to pass off the schism as nothing more than the product of cramped quarters and growing pains, but trusted descendants would hear of the quarrels inevitable among a status-starved people. Undoubtedly some of the tensions were the legacy of slavery's division between the lowly field hands and the slightly more privileged house servants, the latter more often mulattoes. These tensions culminated when "higher elements" among the membership mounted a campaign to remodel the church to face the drier Ripley Street instead of the sloping Columbus, where they were obliged to muddy their shoes on Sundays after a rain. Their proposed renovation, while expensive, would afford cleaner and more dignified access.

Most members and some deacons considered this an unseemly and even un-Christian preoccupation with personal finery, but a sizable minority felt strongly enough to split off and form the Second Baptist Church (Colored). Although the secessionists shared the poverty of the times and of their race—and held their organizational meeting in the old Harwell Mason slave pen—the world of their immediate vision was one of relative privilege. At the first baptismal services, conducted by a proper British minister, guests included three equally proper white Yankee schoolmistresses from the missionary legions who were still streaming south to educate and Christianize the freedmen. In January 1879, the new church paid $250 for a lot and a building that stood proudly in the center of town on Dexter Avenue, little more than a stone's throw from the grand entrance of the Alabama state capitol. The all-Negro congregation renamed itself Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Its first minister, a former slave named Charles Octavius Boothe, wrote that the members were "people of money and refinement" and boasted that one of the members, a barber named Billingslea, owned property worth $300,000. This claim, though widely doubted, entered the official church history.

From the beginning, Dexter Avenue operated as a "deacons' church," meaning that the lay officers took advantage of the full sovereignty claimed by each Baptist congregation. They were free to hire any preacher they wanted—trained or untrained, fit or unfit—without regard to bishops or other church hierarchy. The Baptists had no such hierarchy at all, nor any educational requirements for the pulpit, and this fact had contributed mightily to the spread of the denomination among unlettered whites and Negroes alike. Anyone with lungs and a claim of faith could become a preacher. And as the ministry was the only white-collar trade open to Negroes during slavery—when it was a crime in all the Southern states to teach Negroes to read or allow them to engage in any business requiring the slightest literacy—preachers and would-be preachers competed fiercely for recognition. Religious oratory became the only safe marketable skill, and a reputation for oratory substituted for diplomas and all other credentials. For most of the next century, a man with a burning desire to be a saint might well find himself competing with another preacher intent only on making a fortune, as all roads converged at the Negro church. It served not only as a place of worship but also as a bulletin board to a people who owned no organs of communication, a credit union to those without banks, and even a kind of people's court. These and a hundred extra functions further enhanced the importance of the minister, creating opportunities and pressures that forged what amounted to a new creature and caused the learned skeptic W.E.B. Du Bois to declare at the turn of the twentieth century that "the preacher is the most unique personality developed by the Negro on American soil."

Not surprisingly, these powerful characters sorely tested the ability of congregations to exercise the authority guaranteed them in Baptist doctrine. As a rule, the preachers had no use for church democracy. They considered themselves called by God to the role of Moses, a combination of ruler and prophet, and they believed that the congregation behaved best when its members, like the children of Israel, obeyed as children. The board of deacons at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was one of the few to defend itself effectively against preachers who regularly tried to subdue the membership. Indeed, the board's very identity seemed rooted in the conviction that the church's quality lay as much in the membership as in the pastor. And because those same deacons also made it a tradition to choose the best trained, most ambitious ministers, titanic struggles after the fashion of those between European monarchs and nobles became almost a routine of church life at Dexter. Nearly a dozen preachers came and went in the first decade.

By contrast, the First Baptist Church (Colored) remained a "preacher's church," with only three pastors during its first fifty-seven years of existence. The exalted preachers tended to reign in a manner that provoked another mass exodus in 1910, not long after the church burned to the ground. The minister at that time, Andrew Stokes, was a great orator and organizer who had baptized an astonishing total of 1,100 new members during his first year in the pulpit. Stokes made First Baptist the largest Negro church in the United States until the great migration of 1917 created larger congregations in Chicago. He was also a money-maker. If white realtors had trouble selling a house, they often advanced Stokes the down payment, letting him keep his "refund" when white buyers mobilized to keep him out of their neighborhood. Stokes would joke with his deacons about the justice of making the whites pay for their prejudice, and he donated a portion of the proceeds to the church. This was fine, but a controversy erupted when Stokes proposed to rebuild the burned church a few hundred feet to the northeast on a corner lot that he owned and to take title to the parsonage in exchange for the property. Many irreparable wounds were inflicted in the debate that followed. Stokes went so far as to promise to make the new church entrance face Ripley Street, as the wealthier members had demanded more than thirty years earlier, but the unmollified elite among the deacons led a fresh secession down to Dexter Avenue Baptist.

It was said that Dexter actually discouraged new members, fearing that additions above the peak of seven hundred would reduce the quality of the whole, and several Dexter deacons predicted in public that Stokes would never be able to rebuild First Baptist without their money and influence. Undaunted, Stokes continued preaching to the impoverished masses who stayed with him, meeting outdoors when he could not borrow a church, and he laid down his law: those who were too poor to meet the demands of the building fund must bring one brick each day to the new site, whether that brick was bought, stolen, or unearthed from Civil War ruins. At the dedication ceremony five years later, Stokes led the great cry of thanks that went up for what became known as the "Bricka-Day Church."

Copyright © 1988 by Taylor Branch