The congregation first organized in 1866; early parishioners had worshiped during slavery at the other First Baptist Church in Montgomery, on Perry Street. Before the American Civil War, blacks were allowed only on the balcony of that church: “they were never allowed on the main floor of the sanctuary unless they were sweeping or mopping.” In 1867, 700 African-American communicants had marched to an empty lot on the corner of Ripley Street and Columbus Street, declaring themselves the “First Baptist Church (Colored)” and founding what became “the first ‘free Negro’ institution in the city.” The wooden building itself, which faced north to Columbus Street, was called the Columbus Street Baptist Church.
The first pastor was Nathan Ashby, who also became the first president of the Colored Baptist Convention in Alabama, founded in his church on December 17, 1868. Ashby retired in 1870, after being struck by paralysis. He was followed, briefly, by J.W. Stevens, and starting in 1871, James H. Foster was the pastor for twenty years. Foster is credited with increasing membership from a few hundred to several thousand; his successor, pastor Andrew Stokes, added even more.
Fire destroyed the first frame church. Between 1910 and 1915, the church was rebuilt (now facing east, toward Ripley Street) under the leadership of pastor Stokes. Members of the congregation were asked to each bring a brick a day to build it—hence the church’s nickname, the “Brick-A-Day Church.” The building was designed in the style of the Romanesque Revival by W.T. Bailey of the Tuskegee University.
First Baptist Church during the Civil Rights movement
From 1952 to 1961, the church was led by civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy, a good friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., who preached a few blocks away, at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, from 1954 to 1960. During the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955–1956), it was the location of mass meetings; Abernathy was a confidante of Edgar Nixon and quickly became involved with the boycott. After the boycott was over, and the buses in Montgomery were desegregated, occasionally buses would get ambushed and shot at. One such shooting, on January 10, 1957, was followed by bombings at Montgomery’s Bell Street Baptist Church, the Mount Olive Baptist Church, the Hutchinson Street Baptist Church, and the First Baptist Church and its parsonage (Abernathy’s residence). Raymond C. Britt, Jr., was charged with the bombing of the First Baptist Church, and Henry Alexander and James D. York were charged with the bombing of Abernathy’s house, but city prosecutor D. Eugene Loe ended up dropping the charges.
In the spring of 1958, the basement of the church was the site of the formal initiation of John Lewis into the civil rights movement. Lewis, who had been active at American Baptist College and Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, was planning to enroll at Troy State University in an attempt to desegregate the school, and was invited to Montgomery: at First Baptist Church in the pastor’s office in the basement, he met Abernathy and King.
First Baptist Church Siege
On May 21, 1961, the church was a refuge for the passengers on the Freedom ride which met with violence at the Greyhound Bus Station in downtown Montgomery. The church was filled with some 1500 worshipers and activists, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, Diane Nash, and James Farmer. The building was besieged by 3000 whites who threatened to burn it. In the basement, Dr. King, in the company of Abernathy, Wyatt Tee Walker, James Farmer, and John Lewis, was on the phone with United States Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, while bricks were thrown through the windows and tear gas came drifting in. According to Lewis, Kennedy jokingly asked King to say a prayer, since he was in a church anyway; the activists in the basement were not amused. The events of 20–21 May 1961, including the “siege of First Baptist,” played a crucial part in the desegregation of interstate travel. It was noted that as soon as James Farmer and Shuttlesworth had arrived at the church, the large mob had already formed. The mob could be seen rocking church member’s vehicles back and forth. James Farmer and Shuttlesworth had to enter through the back entrance of the church. In order to this, they had to run through mob members in a graveyard leading to the back entrance. They escaped unscathed due to James Farmer pretending to be a “crazy negro” while running through the crowd.
From inside the church, Martin Luther King, Jr. could be heard yelling that, “The ultimate responsibility for the hideous action in Alabama must be placed at the doorstep of the governor of the state. We hear the familiar cry that morals cannot be legislated. This may be true, but behavior can be regulated. The law may not be able to make a man love me, but it can keep him for lynching me.”
Federal marshals with tear gas and truncheons eventually arrived on the scene. However they could barely contain the mob. King called Robert Kennedy for reinforcement. However, the attorney general wasn’t too pleased about the fact that King had, once again, put himself in a dangerous situation that could have been avoided. He scolded the Freedom Riders for providing “good propaganda for America’s enemies”. Robert then stated that he would not do anything more to help that night, for fear of infuriating the southern whites even more and making them suspect federal encroachment, which would create even further massive resistance.
While on the phone with Kennedy, the question whether or not the Freedom Riders should go into a “Cooling Period” came up. The term “Cooling Period” is a reference to the idea of the Freedom Rider’s taking a break from their Freedom Rides and demonstrations, to give the South a chance to cool off and settle down. Robert Kennedy believed this would stop the violence from escalating to even further levels. King said he’d relay the question to Diane Nash and James Farmer. King almost wanted to agree with Kennedy’s statement but, Diane Nash and James Farmer both refused. James Farmer stated, “Please tell the General that we’ve been cooling off for 350 years. If we cool off anymore, we will be in a deep freeze. The Freedom Ride will go on.”
Robert and John F. Kennedy both pleaded with John Malcom Patterson, governor of Alabama at the time, to cooperate and help protect the African Americans being held at First Baptist Church. Eventually, around 10 pm, Patterson had seen enough. He placed the city under “qualified-martial rule”. A large group of city policemen along with more than a hundred members of the Alabama National Guard had swarmed to First Baptist Church and created a shield around it. Former marshals on the scene were placed under the National Guard command. Shortly after the mob was finally dispersed. Yet; the citizens in the church continued to be held in a siege by the National Guardsmen. The Activists and worshipers were forced to spend the night uncomfortably squished in pews, while government officials tried to work out a deal for their release.
At around 4 am, Government Official, William Orrick, worked out a deal with the Adjutant General of the National Guards, Henry Graham, to release everyone in the church. National Guard trucks and Jeeps were sent to retrieve the Freedom Riders and parishioners out the church.