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Presbyterians and the Civil Rights Movement

In a radio interview with the Christian Broadcasting Associates in February 9, 1957, one month after the bombing of parsonages and churches in Montgomery, Alabama, King hopes for the end of “the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man.”

In 1958, the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. General Assembly invited Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to address the Overseas Breakfast in Hotel Webster Hall during the 170th General Assembly in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. King’s lecture was cast in the form of an imaginary letter from the Apostle Paul to the church in America.

King addresses the Overseas Breakfast in Hotel Webster Hall during the 170th General Assembly in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Dept. of Stewardship and Promotion, photograph by Rev. Arthur M. Byers. (Image ID: 3263)

Dr. Charles Leber and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Overseas Breakfast. United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Dept. of Stewardship and Promotion, photograph by Rev. Arthur M. Byers. (Image ID: 3262)

Under a mandate from the 1964 General Assembly, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. Board of Christian Education’s Division of Christian Action organized the 1965 Christian Action Conference, held in Montreat, North Carolina, on the topic of “The Church and Civil Rights.” BCE Secretary Malcolm P. Calhoun invited Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to make the keynote address. The conference provided an opportunity for members of the church to speak with individuals who had been active in the Civil Rights Movement and to evaluate what role the Church should assume in the crisis.

Christian Action Conference brochure, The Church and Civil Rights, 1965.

Detail from Christian Action Conference brochure, The Church and Civil Rights, 1965. Click to view.

At the conference, King delivered a speech titled “The Church on the Frontier of Racial Tension.” In this portion of King's speech, he laments that future historians will find that “the Christian church in the South was the last bastion of segregated power.”

On September 21, 1966, at the invitation of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Commission on Religion and Race and the Synod of Catawba, King delivered a speech at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina. Three thousand people packed the Hartley-Woods Gymnasium to hear it. In this recording, Dr. King speaks of the spiritual poverty left in the wake of America’s great material progress. King describes a nation riven by racial injustice into prosperous and dispossessed halves.