Ties that bind
by Brett Buckner
Staff Writer
Aug 03, 2008 | 4258 views |  0 comments | 38 38 recommendations | email to a friend | print
They knelt together with hands joined in prayer. In the office of Phil Noble, then pastor of Anniston's First Presbyterian Church, were two black preachers — one Methodist, the other Baptist — along with Noble, who was white.

With tears in their eyes, they prayed for compassion. They prayed for strength and unity. They prayed for an end to segregation.

Together, these three men aimed to change the world, or at least their tiny corner of it.

On that fateful day in 1962, Nimrod Reynolds, pastor of 17th Street Baptist Church, which was one of the oldest historically black congregations in Anniston, met with fellow preacher Bob McClain, then pastor of Haven Chapel Methodist Church. Together they made the journey across town to Noble's office.

In a segregated South and a segregated Anniston, such an act was like taking on the world.

When those three men came together, they had no idea the chain of events their friendship would ignite and how history would conspire to turn each into a hero.

But the fact that such a revolutionary meeting was needed to show the Model City that all men are created equal was stunning proof that the idea of Christian brotherhood was an illusion.

"Looking back across the span of 40 years, I wonder what could have happened if the witness had been stronger in Anniston, Ala.," McClain writes in the preface to Noble's book, Beyond the Burning Bus. "If all those who professed Christianity and who led Christian churches had marched out shoulder to shoulder against our Southern apartheid."

It would be more than a year before that meeting in Phil Noble's office would give rise to what has become known simply as "The Library Incident."

It was Sept. 15, 1963. With the aim of desegregating a public institution, McClain and Reynolds, as members of the newly formed Human Relations Council, decided Anniston's Carnegie Public Library would be a logical place to start.

No one expected their plans would be leaked to the Ku Klux Klan.

At 2 p.m. on Mother's Day — the same Sunday that four little black girls were killed in an explosion at Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church — Reynolds and McClain parked on 10th Street to walk the half block to the library entrance. They were met by a mob of angry whites waiting in parked cars.

Attacked before they reached the door, the two preachers were beaten with sticks, clubs and lengths of chain. After reaching Reynolds's car, a bullet shattered the driver's side window. Fearing they were going to be killed, both men ran and were picked up by another car and taken to the emergency room.

Later that night, McClain preached at 17th Street to a crowd that was angry and ready to avenge their leaders. But he told them "not to hate," but "to clap your hands around (your pastor) because he is right."

They returned the next afternoon — this time with a police escort — determined to integrate the library. Because Reynolds was badly beaten, fellow black pastor George Smitherman, from Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, joined McClain.

Both men successfully checked out books — McClain, How Far to the Promised Land[end ital], and Smitherman, [beg ital]Blood, Sweat and Tears.

Amidst all the turmoil and suffering of the civil rights movement, white pastors in Anniston remained largely silent. While many were undoubtedly sickened by the treatment of their black Christian brothers and sisters, they stayed loyal to the will of their congregation — many of whom opposed integration — for fear of being fired if they spoke out.

"We like to think that ministers are so committed to the Gospel and the Bible's call for justice that they would be unaffected by the lack of (job) security," writes Phil Noble in [beg ital]Beyond the Burning Bus[end ital]. "There were, of course, many exceptions where ministers spoke out. And we must acknowledge that some white ministers were segregationists themselves."

After the library's integration, Martin Luther King Jr., on May 1, 1964, spoke at 17th Street Baptist Church, solidifying its status as a "battleground for the civil rights struggle," Reynolds says.

But even that tumultuous time is but one of many footnotes in the history of the church, and Rev. Reynolds was but one pastor to fight for change.

Among them was J.H. Eason, who, in the final years of the 19th century, became one of the most important leaders in Anniston. Eason helped create a black credit union, a black newspaper called The Union Leader. He established a nursery and other businesses that provided stability and financial structure within the community.

The church is the lifeblood through which everything flows, especially in the black community. If change is to occur, if good is to be done, it often originates from the pulpit.

In 1939, All Saints Catholic Church opened on West 15th Street, giving Anniston a distinctly black presence, something that was rare in the South. But All Saints wasn't established to support an already-existing Catholic population but rather to help the poor.

John Casey, who served All Saints from 1941-1950, raised money and organized youth groups to combat juvenile delinquency. In 1945, he raised money to build playgrounds and organized the Negro Professional & Business Men's Club.

In a speech before the old 17th Street Baptist Church was torn down and replaced by a new sanctuary, Ralph David Abernathy, past president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, addressed the heritage of that building. But he just as easily could have been speaking about Anniston's entire community of black churches.

"If these walls could talk, they would tell a beautiful story," he said. "But we must not look back, but continue to look ahead."
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