Georgia’s African American churches have a long history of political involvement, including a crucial role in the civil rights movement and, more recently, an influence on the decisions made by elected public officials in the city of Atlanta. Throughout the era of racial segregation ministers and educators often served as the leaders of the African American community in towns and cities across the South. The Black church was responsible for providing these leaders because many of the colleges and universities serving African Americans were sponsored by churches.
Black Churches and Civil Rights
In Atlanta prominent African American pastors, such as Martin Luther King Sr. of Ebenezer Baptist Church and William Holmes Borders of Wheat Street Baptist Church, have used their positions as community leaders to meet regularly with elected public officials. In 1946 the federal courts outlawed the all-white primary in the state, opening the way for Blacks to register and vote in primaries. Responding to this change, Black church leaders spearheaded a voter registration drive in Atlanta to increase the number of African Americans who could participate in local elections. Atlanta’s longtime mayor William B. Hartsfield recognized the growing importance of Black voters in local politics and hired eight African American police officers in 1948. This pattern of carefully negotiated steps toward desegregation gave Atlanta a reputation for moderation in race relations.
While Hartsfield proclaimed that Atlanta was “the City Too Busy to Hate,” local African American ministers continued to provide leadership in the struggle to end segregation. For example, in 1957 Borders led a small group of ministers who boarded a city bus and sat near the front in defiance of Georgia’s transit-segregation laws. The ministers were arrested and immediately released on bond, providing a test case for federal courts. The federal district court declared the state law invalid, a decision that integrated the bus system in Atlanta. This kind of gradual change and moderation was in sharp contrast to other cities in the South.
The slow pace of gradual desegregation gave way to peaceful sit-in demonstrations by students from the Atlanta University Center who were determined to force change in the city. A younger generation of church leaders, particularly Martin Luther King Jr. and Andrew Young, taught the students principles of nonviolence. They also served as mediators in a voluntary desegregation agreement arranged among the students, downtown merchants, and such civic leaders as Ivan Allen Jr. The city’s African American churches continued to be instrumental in the struggle for civil rights: they provided space for meetings, their pastors served as community leaders, and their members participated in local politics. The influence of Blacks on city government was strong enough that in 1963 Atlanta mayor Ivan Allen Jr. went to Washington, D.C., to testify in support of the Civil Rights Act, which became law the following year.
Black Churches and Atlanta Politics
Throughout the 1960s Atlanta’s population changed rapidly. Blacks were attracted to the city, in part because of the moderate climate of race relations, and at the same time whites moved to suburbs outside the city limits. The 1970 census reported that for the first time in the city’s history, the majority of Atlanta’s population was African American. Responding to this increased political strength, Atlanta’s Black ministers rallied their members to support the mayoral candidacy of Maynard Jackson, who was elected in 1973 as the city’s first African American mayor. The role of the Black clergy in local elections was to mobilize church members to participate in the political process and to communicate information about candidates and issues.
Some Black ministers played a more active role in local politics. Joseph Lowery, pastor of Central and Cascade United Methodist churches, served for more than twenty years as the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization created by Martin Luther King Jr. From 1975 until 1998 the Reverend Lowery was a member of the board of directors of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), serving three years as chair of the board. Another minister, Andrew Young of the United Church of Christ, was elected mayor of Atlanta in 1981 after serving as a U.S. congressman and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Concerned Black Clergy
With political power in the city firmly in the hands of African American elected officials, in 1983 the attention of Black ministers in Atlanta turned to economic issues. The pastors of six churches that provided services to the homeless met to discuss common problems and ways in which they could work together. From this modest beginning came an organization known as Concerned Black Clergy (CBC), which grew rapidly in size and scope. From its initial interest in providing soup kitchens for the homeless, CBC turned its attention to political issues in Atlanta. In 1986 CBC took an active role in deciding the future of MARTA’s rail lines. The ministers persuaded both Mayor Young and the Fulton County Commission chair to support the extension of a rapid-transit rail line to a low-income neighborhood in northwest Atlanta known as Proctor Creek. They also threatened a boycott of the bus and rail system if the transit authority did not fulfill an earlier promise to build the rail line.
CBC had grown to include more than 125 religious organizations representing more than 100,000 members in 1994. Since its modest start, the organization has continued the tradition of active participation by African American churches in Atlanta’s politics. Candidates for elected office routinely seek its support because the influence of the city’s Black ministers and their congregations remains strong in policy decisions. During the era of segregation, through the struggles of the civil rights movement, and after the city’s population achieved an African American majority, Atlanta’s Black churches have continued to be important participants in local politics.