Baptist Church Once Home to Young Dr. King

NPR's Farai Chideya visits the church in Montgomery, Ala. where a 26-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. once served as pastor. She explores the historic significance of this spot and examines the church's present-day mission.

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

On December 2nd, 1955, a group of civil rights leaders, including Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., gathered in the basement of Montgomery's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. That's when and where they made the decision to launch the bus boycott. NPR's Farai Chideya takes us to this church and examines its mission today.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

In 1877, just a few years after Emancipation, a group of black Montgomery residents founded a church where a slave trader's pen once stood. Instead of black bodies being bought and sold, souls were uplifted. But by the 1950s, some African-Americans were demanding more of the church than verse and Scripture. Many members of the black community were ready to challenge segregationist laws. They expected their church to join forces with them. Richard Jordan Jr.'s great-great-grandfather helped found the church, and Jordan says its activist history stretches way back.

Mr. RICHARD JORDAN Jr. (Church Founder's Descendant): Dexter was not new to Reverend King. You know, Dexter has always had a pastor who spoke spiritually as well as the social Gospel. We had a pastor before Dr. King who was Vernon Johns who really set the pace. So when King came, the climate was automatically set for the social change.

CHIDEYA: One church member, Virginia Gary(ph), is compiling the stories of Dexter congregants who launched the boycott, many of them women.

Ms. VIRGINIA GARY (Church Member): Because they were persons who actually were arrested before Rosa Parks. And when Rosa Parks was arrested and that was the thing that triggered it all, the women's council went right into action by printing leaflets and distributing them throughout the city.

CHIDEYA: Today the church that launched the bus boycott bears the name Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. Reverend King was the church's pastor from 1954 until 1960. Now the Reverend Michael Thurman presides. We attended Sunday's service, which we were not allowed to tape. We entered on the ground floor, which holds a mural of civil rights heroes, including Rosa Parks and Reverend King. Then up a narrow set of interior stairs, we entered the sanctuary and faced the pulpit from which Dr. King preached. Christmas hymns filled the hall. Several of the pews were empty. All of those in attendance were African-American, many of them elderly.

Shortly after the service began, one deacon made an impassioned plea for congregants to donate money for a new $1.7 million building. Reverend Thurman's sermon celebrated what he called, quote, "the 50th anniversary of justice for us," end quote. As much as Dexter Avenue King Memorial embraces its past, it's trying to remain relevant in the present. As Reverend Thurman pointed out in his sermon, African-Americans have by no means reached the promised land. He also stated that federal funds which should have been sent to the Gulf Coast were being sent to the war in the Gulf instead. Reverend Thurman noted Montgomery's crime wave. Recently five people were killed here in seven days. All were black victims killed by black assailants. Deacon Odrey Dryan(ph).

Deacon ODREY DRYAN (Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church): The biggest problem we have in Montgomery is black-on-black crime, folks shooting, stealing and killing each other.

CHIDEYA: And what role can the church play in ending black-on-black crime?

Deacon DRYAN: Well, continue to try to educate the young folks. Like, we bring kids in on Wednesday and we have a tutoring program. And teaching kids how to behave and act civilized as well as learn the A, B, C, D, E and F and then learning how to read and all.

CHIDEYA: As Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church celebrates its important anniversary, members look to make the civil rights struggle tangible to future generations. They're also working to make their institution, the black church, relevant to the problems of today. Farai Chideya, NPR News.

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