5 Star Stories Black History Month: Clayborn Temple, the birthplace of Memphis’ civil rights movement

Clayborn Temple
Clayborn Temple(WMC)
Updated: Feb. 23, 2021 at 9:01 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The historic Clayborn Temple is an architectural masterpiece that became a haven of hope during the civil rights era and it’s arguably the birthplace of Memphis’ civil rights movement.

“This is a really important building in the Mid-South and in the country,” said Clayborn Temple Executive Director Anasa Troutman.

Long before it became a beacon of Black history, the church on the corner of Hernando Street and East Pontotoc Avenue was originally owned by a white congregation.

“This building opened for the first time January 1, 1892, but back then it was the home of Second Presbyterian,” said Troutman.

Over the next several decades, more African Americans began moving downtown and Sunday services began to change.

“As the work for civil rights was rising, there was some resistance from the Second Presbyterian community about worshiping with African American people,” Troutman added.

With that, in 1949, the church sold the building to Bishop J.M. Clayborn’s African Methodist Episcopal Church and changed its name to Clayborn Temple.

“It was a community that was known for being involved in support of social movements at the time,” said Troutman.

By the 1960s, AME Ministers Henry Logan Starks and Ralph Jackson had become active in the Civil Rights Movement. It was a natural fit when in 1968, Memphis sanitation workers used Clayborn Temple as their headquarters to demand better working conditions, after garbage collectors Echol Cole and Robert Walker were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck.

Elmore Nickleberry remembers it like it was yesterday.

“Clayborn played a good part in the sanitation strike,” said Nickleberry. “We would meet there and talk about the mayor and how he was doing us during that time.”

Former Judge George Brown, a confidante to the giants of the Memphis Civil Rights Movement, says the church’s location was in the eye of the storm.

“It was Clayborn Temple because of its proximity to downtown, its proximity to Beale Street, its proximity to where marches would occur and should occur. It was a natural oasis, if you will,” said Brown.

In the spring of 1968, the sanitation workers went on strike and marched from Clayborn Temple to city hall daily. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. saw what was happening and brought his Poor People’s Campaign to Memphis to help further the strikers’ cause.

“It was one of the biggest meetings we had for him to come,” recalled Nickelberry.

“It’s important to say that the Sanitation Workers Strike is the only movement in his career that he came to join and did not lead,” said Troutman.

The historic I AM A MAN signs were printed inside the church on the pastor’s own printing press.

“The first big March that they had for that strike was March 28, 1968,” said Troutman.

Thousands joined Dr. King outside Clayborn Temple to march to city hall. There are different stories about how violence soon erupted: Some blame police, others blame the younger marchers. Many marchers sought refuge at the church as police surrounded and beat them.

“We had to get out of the church because they threw teargas on us inside the church,” Nickelberry remembered.

Some marchers had to break through the stained-glass windows to escape.

“The windows were destroyed, and the inside was damaged because of the assault that the police had on this space,” said Troutman.

Dr. King returned six days later to lead a peaceful march but was assassinated April 4 on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel. April 8, his wife, Corretta, led that peaceful, silent march in her husband’s place, from Clayborn. The strike ended eight days later when Mayor Henry Loeb finally agreed to the strikers’ demands.

“This building is not just important historically for 1968, it’s also on the Historic Register for architecture,” Troutman noted.

The Romanesque Revival church boasts a split-level balcony, a 3,000 pipe organ, vaulted ceilings and three massive stained-glass windows.

“One of them is mostly original glass it’ll still need to be restored and beautiful for people to see, but there are two that are damaged beyond repair,” said Troutman.

In the 1980s, with fewer members, the church ran a soup kitchen until it closed in 1999. The building sat vacant until 2015, when Neighborhood Preservation Incorporated reopened the church for services and social justice gatherings.

In 2017 the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Clayborn Temple a National Treasure and the following year, on the 50th anniversary of the sanitation strike and Dr. King’s assassination, the city erected the I Am a Man Plaza outside the temple.

“A whole bunch of folks here locally worked together to imagine and to have this Plaza be built as a standing, permanent homage to the sanitation workers,” added Troutman.

In June 2020, the space came full circle, after a Minneapolis police officer was filmed killing George Floyd and people across America began marching for police reform.

The “Black Man” music video by Made in Memphis Entertainment Recording Artist Brandon Lewis was filmed under the church’s arch in his honor.

Memphis marches began and ended here, with marchers meeting face to face with the mayor and police director.

“I was really proud that we were involved in a project, in a building, where people still felt like it was their home to have those conversations,” said Troutman.

Though temporarily closed for reconstruction, Clayborn Temple is now a place for reflection.

“My biggest hope for this work is that the descendants of the sanitation workers think that we’re doing a good job, extending the legacy of their ancestors, of their family members,” said Troutman.

The temple is looking for an artist to design the sanitation workers’ story in the stained-glass windows.

For that and more on their upcoming virtual “In This Place” meetups celebrating African American Southern traditions and aesthetics, from singing to story circles and delicious meals, click here for more information.

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