The Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery is one of the most recognized churches in the world, known primarily for its years in the forefront of the civil rights movement led by then-pastor Martin Luther King Jr. It was designated a national historic landmark in 1974, and the city of Montgomery added the church to its list of historic sites in 1976.
The Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was created in 1877 after several members of the First Baptist (Colored) Church became dissatisfied with that church and wanted to begin their own church. White missionary societies and white ministers assisted the congregation in setting up the new church. Initially, the congregation was called the Second Baptist (Colored) Church; in January 1879, the new church bought a small wood-frame building and a lot just beyond the shadow of the state capitol on Market Street, where the Confederacy was formed and Jefferson Davis took his oath of office. The church's current red-brick building was constructed between 1883 and 1889 and was designed by Pelham J. Anderson and built primarily by William Watkins, a member of the congregation. When Market Street was renamed Dexter Avenue in 1884 in honor of Montgomery's founder, Andrew Dexter, the congregation also renamed itself as the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The name was changed again in 1978 to Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, in memory of Martin Luther King Jr., who was the church's 20th pastor.
Throughout its history, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church has prided itself on choosing Americas most well trained, ambitious, politically astute preachers to lead its congregation. The first pastor to guide the congregation of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was freedman, author, and scholar Charles Octavius Boothe.
Two of its most renowned pastors were Vernon Johns and Martin Luther King Jr. It was during Vernon Johns's tenure as pastor that the seeds of the modern civil rights movement were planted. He called for the congregation at Dexter Baptist Church to become more politically active and to challenge Montgomery's segregation laws, in particular Montgomery's segregated bus system. Following on the heels of Johns, Martin Luther King Jr. led the church during the crucial early days of the civil rights movement, including through the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Ironically, King was selected as the 20th pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church after the church congregation decided that they wanted to select a noncontroversial pastor who would help calm the dissension among the congregation that occurred during the tenure of Pastor Johns.
King's activism was evident from the beginning. He insisted that all of the members at the church become registered voters and join the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). King's tenure at the church was not only inspirational, it was stimulating for him. While living in Montgomery, King kept a very busy schedule. His typical day began at 5:30 in the morning, and his normal routine consisted of spending at least three hours each morning researching and writing his dissertation. After working on his dissertation, the rest of his day was filled with his pastoral duties, which included preparations for weekly worship service, studying and writing sermons, officiating at weddings and funerals, and pastoral counseling.
During the autumn of 1954, King formulated plans for programs that would advance the mission and ministries of the church. King also wanted to change the impression that Dexter was a church that catered only to the well-to-do African Americans of Montgomery. King wanted to have all segments of the African American community worship under one roof and become a spiritual force that would positively affect Montgomery.
The church has long been a bulwark of Montgomery's African American community. It was instrumental in helping to establish the Alabama Colored Peoples University, now Alabama State University. In 1887, the church's basement was used for the university's first registration of students. Most of the activities of the Montgomery Bus Boycott were directed from that same basement by King. During the years under King's leadership, the church buzzed with activity and church memberships increased. However, during the 1970s, membership and church attendance slipped. Two major factors contributed to the decline. First, over the years, many African Americans moved from Montgomery's downtown to the suburbs. Along with this exodus, the booming growth of African American and nondenominational churches in Montgomery has caused Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church to struggle to maintain its status as a central force among churches in Montgomery.
In 2008, the church began the first expansion in its history. The building project will include a 6,330-square-foot multipurpose
building behind the church on the corner of Washington Avenue and Decatur Street and a commemorative courtyard with a bronze
statue of King. The expansion also will also house the administrative offices and the weekday ministries of the church. The
church is under consideration as a World Heritage site. Visitors to the site can tour the church and parsonage, where the
King family lived, as well as a museum, garden, and interpretive center.
Carson, Clayborne. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Warner Books, 1998.
Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 1955-1968. New York: William Morrow, 1986.
Neeley, Mary Ann. Montgomery: Capital City Corners (AL) Images of America. Charleston, South Carolina: Acadia Books, 1997.
Thurman, Michael. Voices From the Dexter Pulpit. Montgomery, Alabama: New South Press, 2001.
Vaughn, Wally and Richard Wills. Reflections on Our Pastor: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, 1954-1960. Dover, Masachusetts: Majority Press, 1999.
F. Erik Brooks
Georgia Southern University
Published November 15, 2008
Last updated August 25, 2010