Neglected US civil rights church is returned to its glory

AP News
Posted: Apr 03, 2017 1:04 PM
Neglected US civil rights church is returned to its glory

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A 19th century church in Tennessee that fell into disrepair despite the notable role it played in the civil rights movement is now being resurrected.

With its tall tower and multicolored stained glass windows, the Clayborn Temple in downtown Memphis was the home base for the sanitation workers strike that brought civil rights leader Martin Luther King. Jr. to the city 49 years ago.

It was the starting point for the March 28, 1968 march led by King, a rally that turned violent when police and protesters clashed on the iconic Beale Street.

After King was assassinated in Memphis a week later, and after the strike ended with the workers securing a pay raise, the church's influence waned. It fell into disrepair and became an empty landmark overshadowed by the modern FedEx Forum sports arena across the street.

Shuttered for years, the Clayborn Temple is returning to glory as one of the most significant buildings associated with the civil rights movement in the South. Work to stabilize the building is complete. Now, the goal is to fix up the church for meetings, religious ceremonies, community events and other gatherings.

Fred Davis, a former Memphis City Council member who walked next to King during the 1968 march, said the Clayborn Temple was a symbol of the civil rights activities of the 1960s that is being brought back to life.

"It can be a place for recreation, education, and communication that can take place for citizens of all hues and convictions in this city," said Davis.

For years, the church was among the most visible structures in Memphis. The cornerstone was laid in 1891, and it was dedicated in 1983 by the Second Presbyterian Church.

Built in the Romanesque Revival style, it boasted a limestone exterior, hardwood floors, curved pews, a majestic organ, and a 110-foot tower topped with a 120-foot spire. The spire and pews are long gone, but the tower, organ and parts of the original floor remain. The church bell sits in an alcove, ready to be re-installed.

After 50 years, the Second Presbyterians moved away. The African Methodist Episcopal Church, or AME Church, bought Clayborn Temple for about $100,000.

Sanitation workers started striking in February 1968 after two men were killed while working on a garbage truck. Workers wanted to unionize, and fought for higher pay and safer working conditions. City officials declared the strike illegal and arrested scores of strikers and protesters.

The Clayborn Temple hosted nightly meetings and was a staging point for marches to City Hall, historians say. King, Davis and hundreds more gathered at the temple before the 1968 Beale Street march.

Police broke it up after storefront windows were smashed. A 16-year-old was killed. Marchers retreated to the temple. Police fired tear gas inside and people broke stained-glass to escape.

King promised to lead a second, peaceful march in Memphis, but he was killed by a sniper while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4.

AME's congregation eventually moved out, and suburbanization and economic stagnation hurt the once-thriving downtown area. The church has been vacant for 25 years, plagued by water damage and neglect.

Last year, a group called Clayborn Reborn announced it was renovating the church. The effort was boosted when the National Park Service announced a $400,000 grant for renovations.

The church needs work. Trusses need to be shored up, the floor must be refurbished, beams require strengthening or replacing. Rob Thompson, director of the Clayborn Reborn project, estimates that $10 million must be raised to pay for renovations. The goal is to open the church at the end of 2019 or early 2020, Thompson said.

Clayborn Temple was placed on the National Register of Historic Places for its local significance in 1979. Clayborn Reborn has applied for inclusion on the register for its national importance.

Thompson said he feels that King's assassination may have overshadowed the sanitation workers' strike.

Making Clayborn Temple whole again could change that.

"My thesis is, had King not been killed here, Memphis would be known for the sanitation strike the way that Selma is known for 'Bloody Sunday' and Montgomery was known for the bus boycott," Thompson said. "Their story really hasn't been made part of our collective consciousness."