Northern civil rights workers used to joke that whatever faith we came South with, by the end of our work, we were all Baptists in the southern African American tradition. Although very few actually converted, these churches were vital to our work and that of freedom fighting communities.
At the end of the Civil War newly free communities quickly established their own religious institutions. Baptist churches were independent, without national boards, which enabled congregations to become active in the Civil Rights Movement. Churches were the spiritual center of the Black community. Sunday morning and Wednesday evening services joined congregants in sermon, prayer and song. Civil rights rallies, called mass meetings, were held separately. Some of the most active churches in Wilcox County are still lovingly preserved including: Antioch, Pleasant View, Pleasant Grove, Little Zion #1 and Boiling Springs.
Under the pastorate of Rev Samuel Freeman, Camden’s Antioch Baptist Church became “Movement Central” for Wilcox County. Dr. King spoke there several times between 1963-1968, including when he spoke from the doorway of a metal trailer due to threats to bomb the church and to kill him if he entered in 1966. Marches to the courthouse often began at Antioch and was where leaders regrouped after attacks by the mayor, sherriff and their citizen posse. Mass meetings drew local as well as national leaders to lend support to the stalwart community. Now 144 yrs old, the church survived many attacks on its building and congregants. In July 1965, while serving as an office for SCLC’s SCOPE voter registration project, armed men shot up the church and savagely beat local youth. In January 1966, David Colston Sr., was shot and killed at close range as he pulled into the church parking lot with his family to attend a mass meeting on voting rights. The courage of congregants sanctioning civil rights actions while living close to violent segregationists cannot be overstated. In 1996 Antioch became a registered historic landmark and is still supported by a small but loyal congregation.
Rev. Frank Smith, pastor of Pleasant View Baptist Church in Lower Peachtree, paid dearly for his leadership in the fight for equal, integrated schools. Jesse Smith recalls his parent’s courage by allowing him to start a “Freedom School” at the church and by housing white civil rights workers. Stokley Carmichael, as well as SCLC leaders Daniel Harrell and Major Johns spoke at the church. Reverend and Mrs. Smith lost their teaching positions and were banned from teaching in Wilcox County as punishment for their involvement in the Movement. After years of lawsuits, Rev Smith and other unjustly fired teachers received small settlements from the Board of Education. Rev Smith then ran and was elected to the Board of Education.
Boiling Springs Baptist Church is in a remote, rual area between Catherine and Alberta in Northwestern Wilcox County. Many African Americans in this region were active in the Movement. They allowed their children to canvass for voters and go to march in Camden and Selma. Families like the Burrells and Lawsons kept “Freedom Houses” where civil rights workers stayed. After being trained by SCLC, Virginia Boykin Burrell led literacy and voter education training at the church. Rev Kendall was the pastor for over thirty years, while Rev. L.V. Baldwin was a frequent guest preacher during the civil rights era.
Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church #1, in the tiny village of Coy 20 miles from Camden, was an action center. Brooks, Charleys, Washingtons, Angions and other families regularly joined marchers in Selma and Camden, canvassed in their own and other areas, and kept safe houses for civil rights workers. One resident estimated that more Coy community members were on the bridge on Bloody Sunday than from any other town outside of Selma. Well-attended mass meetings were held at Little Zion Baptist Church where SCLC Field Director Daniel Harrell preached often during the 1964-66 voting rights fight.
Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, was set apart from any nearby white community in the now-famous community of Gees Bend. Bernard LaFayette met with leaders there to help organize one of the early voting rights marches on the county courthouse in 1963. That march is credited with the first registration of African Americans since Reconstruction. Monroe Pettway and Rev. Lonnie Brown brought one of the early voting rights lawsuits. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. visited and preached at Pleasant Grove. When he was slain, his coffin was carried in a Gee’s Bend wagon.
Camden Academy Chapel, on the campus of Presbyterian mission school Camden Academy, was a center for student inspiration and moral development. Alumni recall Rev T.L. Threadgill as the chaplain and teacher who supported their demonstrations. Community leaders consider him and his daughter, Sheryl Threadgill-Matthews, among the greatest local leaders. Dr. King visited with Rev. Threadgill often, and encouraged the students in their nonviolent demonstrations. Rev. Threadgill risked his position further by allowing white civil rights workers to stay in a campus dormitory during the SCLC SCOPE Voting Rights project of 1965.
In retribution for the Threadgill family activism, the chapel and the Threadgill home were condemed and destroyed by the School Board in August 1965. By 1975 the board of education destroyed every building on this historic activist campus and closed the school. But the spirit of the Threadgills, Dr King and Movement students lives on in the hearts and minds of all who were blessed to walk those halls, and pray in that chapel.
Maria Gitin is a civil rights veteran, Wilcox County 1965, and author of “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight (University of Alabama Press 2014). For more information on the book and how to order: www.thisbrightlightofours.com