Black Baptist women and the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement, 1956-1963: historians and journalists during and immediately after the Civil Rights Movement emphasized the role of religion in the movement. They showed how the black church and its leaders provided the charisma, finance, inspiration, spiritual nurture, and the foot soldiers that made the movement successful
Wilson Fallin, Jr.
Most of the attention was lavished on ordained clergy and prominent male leadership figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Wyatt T. Walker, James Farmer, and Fred Shuttlesworth. In recent years, more attention has been given to the work of religious women, especially those of grassroots importance in the various civil rights campaigns. Scholars, many of them females, have sought to show how the history of the black women’s religious experience informed their sense of social responsibility and activism. One of the most important civil rights campaigns occurred in Birmingham, Alabama, between 1956 and 1963, and a study of this campaign demonstrates the importance of women at all levels.
Before looking at the role of women, especially Baptist women involved in the Birmingham movement, an examination of the movement’s origin and major features is necessary. In 1956, many persons considered Birmingham, which was often referred to as the Johannesburg of the South, to be the most segregated city in the United States. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) became the most active group in protesting discrimination in Birmingham and throughout Alabama. The outlawing of the NAACP by the state of Alabama was the spark that set off a mass-based Civil Rights Movement. Led by Attorney General John Patterson, the state of Alabama successfully won an injunction against the NAACP, preventing the association from operating in the state until it complied with Alabama’s new registration requirements for organizations headquartered outside the state. One requirement was that an organization must present its membership rolls to the state, but the Alabama NAACP officials were convinced that adhering to this requirement would bring all kinds of reprisals against its members.
The Importance of Fred Shuttlesworth
One person perturbed by the ban of the NAACP was Fred Shuttlesworth, pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church. Shortly after the ban, Shuttlesworth proposed the holding of a mass meeting to see if blacks in Birmingham wanted to organize to fight for their rights. He convinced four pastors, N. H. Smith, Jr., G. E. Pruitt, T. L. Lane, and R. L. Alford, to join him in the call. On June 5, 1956, at the Sardis Baptist Church, these pastors led in the formation of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR).
The strategy of the ACMHR combined direct action and legal redress. Members of the group would break segregation laws, and then they would challenge those laws in the courts. This approach represented a radical departure from prior civil rights activity in Birmingham. Before the implementation of this new strategy, groups would petition the city, or they would challenge segregation laws in the courts. Now black Alabamans were actually breaking the laws.
The ACMHR met every Monday night. Members adopted the slogan, “The Movement is Moving.” A mass-based religiously orientated Civil Rights Movement had started in Birmingham, and this movement, more militant than the NAACP, was made up of pastors and church people who were convinced that God would give them the victory over the forces of segregation in the city.
The importance of Shuttlesworth for the Birmingham movement cannot be overstated. In 1953, Shuttlesworth had moved to Birmingham to pastor the Bethel Baptist Church. He immediately joined the NAACP and became its membership secretary. The 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision that outlawed segregated schools inspired Shuttlesworth to believe that African American freedom was possible and propelled him into increased involvement in civil rights. He attended meetings of the Montgomery bus boycott and communicated with its leadership. When the NAACP was outlawed in Alabama, Shuttlesworth sprang into action and formed the ACMHR.
Shuttlesworth possessed a stubborn will, indomitable faith, and a sense of divine compulsion and destiny. He felt that God had called him to be the leader of his church. While pastoring the First Baptist Church in Selma, Shuttlesworth had refused to allow the deacons to make major decisions for the church without his participation. He succeeded in getting the church to stand with him. He brought that same determination with him to the Civil Rights Movement. In December 1956, less than six months after the formation of the ACMHR, Shuttlesworth’s home was bombed. The bomb exploded underneath the room in which he was talking to a deacon. The force of the explosion threw the Baptist pastor into the air and destroyed the box springs of the bed where he was sitting. Miraculously, he escaped without injury. Shuttlesworth and his followers interpreted his survival as a sign that God had ordained him to lead the movement.
“He’s all right,” shouted a woman from among the crowd of 500 that had assembled outside his bombed house, and “he is going to be all right.” Someone else shouted, “God saved the reverend to lead the movement.” Shuttlesworth said on more than one occasion that this event convinced him that God would protect him and give him the victory over segregation in Birmingham. More than any other event, the bombing galvanized the movement and gave Shuttlesworth a personal following. This following consisted of a core of approximately fifteen pastors, mostly Baptists, who surrounded Shuttlesworth and formed the inner circle. They supported the movement financially, served on the board of directors of the ACMHR, and were dedicated to Shuttlesworth’s leadership.
The Role of Baptist Pastors
A second major feature of the Birmingham movement was its overwhelmingly Baptist orientation. Shuttlesworth was a Baptist pastor, and of the fifteen pastors in his inner circles, all were Baptists, with the exception of T. L. Lane, who pastored an independent Methodist Church.
Why Baptist pastors? Baptist churches were among the largest in the city, and Baptist pastors were among the most numerous and pastored the largest churches, which gave them great prestige and influence. Baptist pastors were free from the economic control of whites since they received their support from their congregations–congregations that often praised and supported them for their participation in the ACMHR. Furthermore, Baptist ministers, unlike those of other denominations were responsible to their local congregations and were not hampered by conservative bishops and other church officials.
The Afro-Baptist theology of these pastors was also responsible for the Baptist domination of the movement. Andrew Manis, in Southern Civil Religions in Conflict, White and Black Baptists and Civil Rights, 1947-1957, pointed out that two different religions developed in the South among Baptists in the mid-1950s. Black Baptists, who had developed a form of liberation theology beginning in slavery, saw God at work in the Civil Rights Movement. They interpreted it in terms of exodus, emancipation, freedom, and the fulfillment of the American promise. This emphasis spurred black Baptists, lay and clergy, male and female, to participate.
Southern Baptists, on the other hand, practiced a form of Christianity with little or no social ethic and saw the Civil Rights Movement as synonymous with communism, believing it would destroy individual rights and result in interracial marriages. God, some insisted, was the original segregator and to integrate was against his will.
In almost every way, the ACMHR mirrored African American Baptist churches. Its leader, Shuttlesworth, was a charismatic pastor who believed God had called him for the task. His followers also believed in his divine calling and would show their esteem for his leadership by standing and applauding as he entered the mass meetings. The ACMHR’s board of directors resembled a board of deacons. Their infrequent meetings were held at Shuttlesworth’s request, and essentially, he made the decisions.
The influence of the church and its peculiar culture on the ACMHR stands out most vividly in the organization’s weekly mass meetings. These meetings were essentially Baptist worship services. The meetings began with a thirty-minute devotional service made up of prayers, spirituals, and meter hymns, followed by singing by the ACMHR choir. The presider, usually vice-president Edward Gardner, pastor of Mt. Olive Baptist Church, offered opening remarks, and then a local supporting pastor delivered a sermon. President Shuttlesworth then made some remarks and gave directions for the movement. Finally, the ushers took up an offering. The meetings were emotional with much shouting. For example, at the meeting of January 23, 1961, Oscar Herron, a local pastor, preached. The result was that a dozen women became so emotional that ushers had to remove them from the church. Fellow ministers and ushers had to restrain Herron from continuing his sermon for fear that the meeting would break into pandemonium or a stampede. At the meeting of April 17, 1961, in which there was unusual emotional fervor and shouting, Shuttlesworth had to remind the audience that this was not a church but a movement with business that needed attention. The mass meetings, as was true of African American church services, provided emotional release and the courage to fight the forces of segregation in a hostile environment.
The Contributions of Women
Women were indispensable to the ACMHR. As was true in every African American church, women made up the majority of the organization’s members, approximately 61.7 percent throughout its existence. A study of the membership of the ACMHR in 1959 by sociologist Jacqueline Clarke, who polled 254 members, showed a striking similarity between the female members in Baptist churches in Birmingham and those in the ACMHR. Ninety-eight percent of the ACMHR members were also church members; 87.3 percent of that figure were Baptists.
Who were these black Baptist women? They were basically from the lower middle class. Forty-nine percent were unskilled. Many, however, worked jobs that made them immune from white economic pressure. They were beauticians, insurance agents, and secretaries for black businesses. Seventeen percent were housewives.
What led the women to join the movement in such massive numbers? One significant factor was their middle-class values and strivings. Although most of the women had limited experience and education, they wanted to better their economic and social position. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute interviewed seventy women who were active in the movement. Among their goals for the movement, they mentioned securing constitutional rights in education, transportation, and employment. They also indicated in large numbers that they hoped to end segregation and discrimination and receive equal, just, and fair treatment. Many were concerned about greater rights for their children and grandchildren.
Highly active in their churches where they served as mission leaders, deaconnesses, choir members, ushers, and pastor aide leaders, these women testified that the urging and example of their pastors prompted them to join. Mamie Brown, member of the Forty Sixth Street Baptist Church, stated that what led her to the movement was a voting clinic that her pastor conducted at their church during the movement. Because of the clinic, she decided to join and received support from her pastor and her church. Doris Thompkins joined the movement when it met at her church in 1956. Her pastor Nelson Smith had become secretary of the ACMHR and was an avid supporter of the organization. Thompkins noted that because of her pastor 80 percent of their church members supported the movement in one way or the other. Hattie Felder indicated that she knew Shuttlesworth when he pastored in Selma. When she came to Birmingham, she joined his church and became caught up in the movement.
A robust faith and a commitment to the liberation theology of the black Baptist church constituted a third reason why these women joined the movement. Their faith came out vividly in their reply to the question posed concerning fear. Most replied that their participation had not caused them to be afraid, giving as the chief reason for their lack of fear that the movement was God inspired and he would take care of them. Several referred to the mass meetings as bolstering their faith and activism. Flora Smith stated that she did not plan to go to jail, but after Shuttlesworth preached from the book of Esther and showed how God had saved the Israelite nation through this Hebrew woman, Smith decided that her time had come. She spent five days in jail, but insisted that it was an exciting time for her. Along with others in the jail, she sang and prayed, and she testified that these activities strengthened her resolve.
In spite of their faith, social strivings, and majority status within the movement, Birmingham Baptist women seemed content to be assigned the traditional roles that they assumed in their membership churches. Men made the major decisions, and women were the chief fund-raisers. In this role, women almost exclusively directed candy and bake sales, socials, and dinners. They also directed and coordinated special occasions. The most grand occasion and biggest fund-raiser was the organization’s annual anniversary. At this dinner, the group recalled its beginnings and celebrated another year of existence. The dinner featured a guest speaker, a souvenir program with financial ads and patrons, and much joyous singing and praise to God. The fund-raising helped sustain the movement that constantly had to pay lawyer fees and court costs.
In two organizations within the ACMHR, women made up the majority of the members. The ACMHR choir, formed in 1960, was intended to enhance the spirituality of the Monday night meetings. Twenty-three members formed the group. Most were Baptist women who sang in their church choirs and were accustomed to singing songs similar to those sung by the movement choir, including spirituals and gospel hymns. They sang “God Will Make a Way Some How,” Walk with me Lord,” and “Ninety-Nine and a Half Won’t Do.” One member of the choir remarked that “the choir sang with faith in God knowing that his power worked through their songs to give courage.” In the mass meetings, female singers allowed their emotions to take over, and on many occasions, they had to be restrained by the ushers.
Another auxiliary organization formed was the ushers. Led by Charles Billups, the usher group, like the choir, was made up predominately of women from Baptist churches, which mirrored the gender make-up of the ushers serving in most Baptist churches. The main purpose of ushers was to provide order, greet people, seat the attendees at the mass meetings, and restrain those who became too emotional. Like in their Baptist churches, being an usher provided women with an opportunity for recognition and a sense of importance in a city that provided few opportunities for black women. Although they worked as maids or cooks or domestics in the secular world, these women could put on an usher’s uniform or badge and be quite visible. Also, ACMHR ushers saw themselves as providing a service for an organization that was creating change for blacks in Birmingham.
A few women served in leadership roles within the ACMHR. These leadership roles were traditional and acceptable in their Baptist churches. For example, women directed the youth activities of the organization. Among those providing such leadership were Lucinda Roby of the Green Liberty Baptist Church, Miriam Woods of the Metropolitian Baptist Church, and Ruby Shuttlesworth, wife of Fred Shuttlesworth.
Lola Hendrix served as corresponding secretary from 1956 to 1963, a leadership position but again a position that women often filled in their churches. Hendrix had been a member of the NAACP. When it was banned and the ACMHR organized, she joined at the first meeting and on the recommendation of her pastor was made corresponding secretary. When asked what led her to the movement, she mentioned her dissatisfaction with race relations in Birmingham. Two things, she insisted, especially galled her: (1) the Judge Aaron incident which occurred in 1956 when a black man was castrated at random by a group of whites, and (2) having to ride behind a black-only sign on the city busses. At the first meeting, seeing the faith and determination of its leaders, including her pastor, Hendrix saw the organization as the best means to improve conditions for blacks in Birmingham. She further stated that because of her position she did not go to jail. She was needed outside to help coordinate the activities of the group. When Martin Luther King, Jr., came to Birmingham in 1963, she helped Wyatt Walker coordinate the sit-ins for the group as well as other activities.
Two areas in which women served in ACMHR positions not reserved for them in Baptist churches were on the executive and advisory boards. Many of these positions were reserved for professional women, which represented about 10 percent of all female members. One of the members of the executive board was Lucinda Roby, a school principal who was probably the most outspoken women in the movement. Few other women educators joined. Roby possessed a demeanor, faith, and fortitude that allowed her to participate without fear. Her activities appeared to challenge the all-white board of education to fire her. On the executive board she did not hesitate to speak her mind. Other women board members were Dexter Brooks, owner of Dexter Brooks Flower Shop and Daisy Jeffries, a high school teacher.
The Birmingham Civil Rights Movement stands as a testimony to the liberation theology of black Baptist churches. Although led by Baptist pastors, it would not have succeeded without black Baptist women. They were the majority of the membership, and they raised funds, headed the youth division, and provided spiritual fervor–all activities that they also provided in their churches. In addition, these women put aside fear, sang, and ushered in full view of white policemen who were sent to meetings to intimidate them and other members in attendance. The women’s primary goal was self-elevation in terms of material, educational, and employment advancement for themselves and their children. They were women of faith who were thoroughly convinced that God would give them the victory in Birmingham.
Clarke, Jacquelyne Johnson, “Goals and Techniques in Three Civil Rights Organizations in Alabama.” Ph.d. Dissertation, Ohio State University, 1960.
Eskew, Glenn. But For Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Fallin, Wilson, Jr. The African American Church in Birmingham, Alabama, 1815-1963. New York: Garland Press, 1997.
Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1989.
Garrow, David, J. ed. Birmingham, Alabama, 1956-1963: The Black Struggle for Civil Rights. Brooklyn, New York: Carlson Publishing. 1989.
Morris, Aldon. The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change. New York: The Free Press, 1984.
Oral history Project of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. This project contains a few hundred interviews of persons, including women, who participated in the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement. Police Surveillance Papers of the Birmingham Police Department found in the Birmingham Public Library. These papers contain the records of the public meetings of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights from 1956 to 1963.
Wilson Fallin, Jr, is professor of history at the University of Montevallo, Montevallo, Alabama.
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