Churches in Montgomery, Alabama, Played an Important Part in the City’s 200-Year History of Slavery & Civil Rights

An installation art sculpture of slaves by artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Connections between Christianity, Confederacy and civil rights — and the history of slavery — are in plain sight here in Alabama’s capital.

Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church is known for its most famous pastor, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but one of its early locations was once a slave pen.

St. John’s Episcopal Church, where Confederacy President Jefferson Davis worshipped, is across the street from the building where Rosa Parks was tried after she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man.

And just beyond downtown, Old Ship African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, a congregation that dates to before the end of slavery, sits across the street from the memorial that opened in 2018 to remember more than 4,400 lynching victims.

As the nation marks the 400th anniversary of the forced arrival of Africans in Virginia — and Alabama has its bicentennial — a walk through Montgomery’s streets reveals the legacy of slavery in America.

Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church is where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached in Montgomery, Ala. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

“It is the cradle of the Confederacy and the birthplace of the modern civil rights movement,” said Kathy Dunn Jackson, volunteer historian of Old Ship AME Zion Church.

Religion sometimes played a role in the violence that followed slavery, as seen at the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

Amid the 800 6-foot orangey-brown steel columns memorializing those lynched from 1877 to 1950 — often by white Southerners angered by the end of slavery — is an example of a religious ceremony being cited as a reason to kill.

Columns memorializing lynching victims are suspended above visitors at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

“Arthur St. Clair, a minister, was lynched in Hernando County, Florida, in 1877 for performing the wedding of a black man and white woman,” reads a sign.

The memorial, on a 6-acre site, is described by its creators as “a sacred space for truth-telling and reflection about racial terrorism and its legacy.”

About a mile away, the EJI’s Legacy Museum, which traces history “from enslavement to mass incarceration,” features holograms of black men, women and children, held in pens singing spirituals like “Lord, How Come Me Here?” and speaking of missed loved ones from whom they have just been taken.

Soil from lynching sites fills jars at the Equal Justice Initiative’s Peace and Justice Memorial Center in Montgomery, Ala. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Like Dexter Avenue’s early location, the site of the museum was once a slave pen: “You are standing on a site where enslaved people were warehoused,” read words on a wall at its entrance.

Another sign points out that in 1860 Montgomery, there were more places for trading slaves than hotels and churches.

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Source: Religion News Service