King's vision embraced by Ala. church

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is Jan. 19.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP) -- An Alabama church whose pastor was criticized 52 years ago by Martin Luther King Jr. for contributing to the "silent -- and often vocal -- sanction" of racial segregation says today it has come to embrace the civil rights pioneer's vision for Christian fellowship among people of all races.

Earl Stallings, pastor of First Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., welcomed black worshipers following an Easter service in 1963.
SBHLA photo
"Fifty years ago, our church and its relationship with Dr. King reflected the divisiveness of a difficult time in American history," Jim Cooley, current pastor of First Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., told Baptist Press. "Today our church reflects the inclusiveness of churches who recognize that everyone is a person Christ died for and everyone has a place within God's house."

Today First Baptist has white, black, Hispanic and South Asian members and conducts outreach to people of other ethnic groups. But that was not the case in 1963, when First Baptist's pastor, Earl Stallings, was one of eight white Protestant, Catholic and Jewish clergymen in Birmingham to whom King addressed his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."

Amid protests of racial segregation in the city, King was arrested for disobeying a judge's injunction against demonstrating. While in prison, King read in the newspaper a statement by Stallings and the seven other religious leaders agreeing that injustice existed but accusing King of being an "outsider" who used "extreme measures" that incited "hate and violence."

King responded at length, criticizing "white moderates" who claimed to favor integration but wanted blacks to wait rather than protest. He also took exception with the charge that civil rights activists were extremists.

"Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: 'I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.' Was not Martin Luther an extremist: 'Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God,'" King wrote.

"... So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime -- the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists," King wrote.

Though criticized by King, Stallings, who died in 2006, was also praised by name in the letter for opening his church to black worshipers days earlier on Easter Sunday -- a move that drew criticism from segregationists.

"I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand on this past Sunday, in welcoming Negroes to your worship service on a nonsegregated basis," King wrote.

Years later, Stallings told Samford University history professor Jonathan Bass that he was harassed and threatened following his decision to admit black worshipers, and his wife Ruth feared for his life when he left home to go to his office. The experience led Stallings to vow that he would never discuss his years in Birmingham while Ruth was alive -- a promise he kept, talking about his experience at First Baptist only after Ruth died in 2001.

Stallings left First Baptist in 1965 to assume a pastorate in Georgia, but racial tension persisted in Birmingham. In the early 1970s, a black woman presented herself for membership at First Baptist, and the disagreement over whether to receive her was one factor that contributed to a church split.

Carlisle Driggers, who served as an associate pastor at First Baptist between 1969-71, went with the splinter group and agreed with its plan to welcome people of all races.

Many of the people who remained at First Baptist "were not rabid segregationists by any means," Driggers, who went on to become executive director of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, told BP. "Some of them were, but some of them were not."

Yet national media reports portrayed First Baptist as opposed to integration, Driggers said.

Many members "who were cast as anti-integration had hardly ever gone out of Alabama," Driggers said. "They were homegrown folks and they lived there, worked there and were educated there. And they protected Alabama fiercely, whereas the ones who were more progressive and open to interracial ministries and having the church develop outreach to blacks ... had gone off to be educated in other parts of the country" or had jobs that required them to travel and interact with persons of other races.

In time, First Baptist moved from downtown Birmingham to its present location in Homewood. Cooley said few members today know who Stallings was, but they embrace King's vision of a multiracial church, a reality underscored recently by the congregation's celebration of an African American teenager's baptism as a natural part of their worship.

The struggles of the civil rights era "happened to different people a long time ago," pastor Cooley said. First Baptist "decided it wanted to be a church that extended the arms of Jesus to everybody."

James Dixon, an African American pastor who lived in Birmingham in 1963, urged Southern Baptists to learn from the resistance to racial inclusion of congregations like First Baptist in the mid-20th century. If churches had fulfilled their responsibility to love people of all races, the "outsiders" of whom Stallings and others complained would not have had to lead protests, Dixon told BP.

Churches tend to discuss the topic of race only "when you've got a devastating situation going on, when people have lost their lives," Dixon, now the longtime pastor of El Bethel Baptist Church in Fort Washington, Md., said. "But I think the church needs to be very deliberate in embracing the Bible and let the Bible be the driving force by which we act in terms of our love."

As Southern Baptists worship this Martin Luther King Day weekend, they must accompany their commitment to biblical doctrine with a recommitment to living out the Great Commandment of loving God and neighbors, Dixon said.

"We need to revisit the Great Commandment and really understand what it means when we're looking at love," Dixon said. "The Great Commandment fully understood opens the door to the Great Commission."

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service.
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