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Documentary depicts churches’ role at center of civil rights movement

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–The American civil rights movement might have been played out on the buses, streets and lunch counters of the South — but it was in the African American churches where participants found the spiritual strength for their task.

That simple premise, often acknowledged but rarely explored in depth, is the basis for a new historical documentary produced by the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board’s FamilyNet subsidiary for broadcast on affiliate stations of the ABC television network.

“We Shall Not Be Moved” follows the movement through three pivotal cities in Alabama — Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma — from the perspective of churches on the front lines of the struggle. Those interviewed for the project include both lesser-known participants and national leaders, including Fred Shuttlesworth, Andrew Young, Benjamin Hooks and John Lewis.

“Here’s a huge historical event, but the tremendous role of the church rarely gets reported,” said Bernie Hargis, producer and director of the documentary. “Everybody that we interviewed is saying the church is the movement. If it hadn’t been for the church there would be no movement.”

The one-hour documentary, produced by FamilyNet in conjunction with the Interfaith Broadcast Commission, is being distributed this month to ABC affiliates for broadcast at their discretion through mid-December. Because of the depth of content, a two-hour version featuring materials from other key cities in the civil rights movement is being prepared for prime-time airing on the Hallmark Channel early next year.

Hargis said the documentary actually grew out of a project examining the country’s historic churches. But producers quickly realized the churches associated with the civil rights movement warranted a focus of their own.

The story begins in Montgomery, with the call of Martin Luther King Jr. as pastor of the historic Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. A Boston University graduate considered by many to be worthy of a more prestigious pulpit, King saw the pastorate as an opportunity to grow and work toward completion of his Ph.D.

The refusal of a young woman named Rosa Parks to move to the back of a bus kicked off the firestorm that brought dramatic changes in both his life and the nation, the documentary recounts.

King was chosen as leader of an organization of pastors and community activists known as the Montgomery Improvement Association, and the boycott they led — carried out by thousands of people in the pews — became what one leader called “one of the most powerful single protests that the world has ever seen.”

“The civil rights movement, as has been said, is no more than a series of prayer meetings,” Michael Thurmond, the current pastor of Dexter Avenue, says in the documentary. “At least in Montgomery, it was no more than a series of prayer meetings and preaching and sermons which inspired people to protest.”

In Birmingham, it was the courageous Fred Shuttlesworth, pastor of Bethel Baptist Church, who led weekly meetings in churches throughout the city to prepare the community for to take its stance. It was also in Birmingham that some of the most violent backlash occurred, from the firehoses and nightsticks turned on nonviolent protestors by police to the bombing of Shuttlesworth’s own home.

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham had become a center for the movement because it had one of the city’s largest sanctuaries. On Sept. 15, 1963, four girls left Sunday school early to prepare for their part in a youth day service at the church, according to those who were there. A horrific bomb made martyrs of them at 10:22 a.m.

“It might have been one of the things that disgusted many of the good people, white people, who did not support the movement but who suddenly realized that they would rather be on the same side with these little girls in church on Sunday morning than on the racists’ that were bombing churches,” Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta and an early leader in the movement, says in the documentary.

In Selma, it was the right to vote that was at stake — in a city where only 2.1 percent of the city’s black population were even registered to vote. Those who did seek to vote were often subjected to “literacy tests” including such requirements as accurately guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar or reciting sections of the U.S. Constitution, according to one pastor interviewed.

Brown Chapel, a church near downtown Selma, was where the movement took shape, with crowds numbering 1,200-1,500 strong on any given night.

“It was very much like a revival meeting … with great singing and great oratory, great preaching … great testimonies,” says James Webb, pastor of Ward Chapel A.M.E Church in Selma.

“The mass meetings were always the time to actually be reminded of our Christian responsibility, and the foundation — the Christian foundation — around which this movement was built,” adds James Reese, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Selma.

It was Brown Chapel where a march to Montgomery began on March 7, 1965, only to end at the Edmund Pettus Bridge at the edge of the city. Witnesses describe how a small army of state troopers dispersed the crowd in a bloody clash of nightsticks, teargas and trampling by horses. Two weeks later, supporters across the nation joined as thousands of federal troops ensured the safety of marchers and eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act.

“It transformed our country, and we will never ever be the same because of that one act,” says John Lewis, now a congressman from Georgia.

For information on local broadcast dates and times, contact your local ABC television affiliate.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net.

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  • James Dotson