From MLK to John Lewis, Ebenezer Baptist Church has been a haven for civil rights

The church was a home base to Martin Luther King Jr., and has since hosted several important events in the movement for racial justice.
Crowd Outside Ebenezer Baptist Church
A large crowd gathers as Dr. Martin Luther King's casket is brought into Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on April 8, 1968.Bettmann Archive

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By Jewel Wicker

The Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. and his father before him served as pastors, is certainly no stranger to hosting prominent funerals — from King himself to Rayshard Brooks last month.

So the Atlanta institution known as “America’s Freedom Church” was a natural home for the funeral of John Lewis, the longtime Georgia congressman and civil rights champion who died on July 17 at age 80.

The Lewis funeral is being held Thursday as Ebenezer, like religious gathering places across the country, is making special accommodations to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, the church is capping attendance at the private ceremony at 240 (including Secret Service details for prominent guests) to account for social distancing measures, but the funeral will be livestreamed for the general public.

The service also takes place as America is having a much-needed conversation on racial justice, and as the church and nation commemorates the life of a much-admired statesman whose life’s work was an embodiment of Ebenezer’s mission.

The Rev. John Vaughn, who took over as the church’s executive pastor in February, said Ebenezer has long been known for hosting “state funerals” for civil rights leaders — like the organizer Hosea Williams and Rita Jackson Samuels, a women’s rights advocate who worked in the Civil Rights movement — and for celebrating the lives of those who have made a difference in the fight for civil rights. It’s also been a place for the local community to gather in the wake of tragedies like the mass shootings at the Pulse nightclub in 2016 in Orlando, Florida, and at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.

The most noteworthy send-off, of course, was the one for King after his assassination in 1968. The most recent was in June for Brooks, a Black man killed by police in the parking lot of a Wendy’s in Atlanta. Brooks only became famous in death, but Vaughn said his killing helped renew a crucial conversation about the change that needs to happen in America.

Rayshard Brooks' coffin is carried out of Ebenezer Baptist Church following his funeral in Atlanta on June 23.Curtis Compton / Atlanta Journal-Constitution Pool

Ebenezer’s senior pastor, the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, delivered the eulogy for Brooks — calling him “the latest high-profile casualty in the struggle for justice” — and will do so for Lewis on Thursday.

“When you take stock of his courage, it’s a courage that is rooted in his faith,” Warnock said of Lewis in a phone interview this week. “He’s always been a church boy. He wrestled with a call to ministry early in life. But instead of preaching sermons, he became one. That is his legacy. And it is tied to a church with a storied history of faith and freedom making.”

During Brooks’ eulogy, Warnock spoke about Ebenezer’s work to end the mass incarceration of Black Americans and recalled an annual summit the church participates in to help attendees expunge records from felony and misdemeanor arrests that did not result in a conviction.

Ebenezer pastor Raphael G. Warnock, left, with Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who was a parishioner of Ebenezer Baptist Church for decades.Courtesy Richard DuCree

Warnock, 51, is attempting to take that work to Washington by being one of several Democrats running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Kelly Loeffler, a Republican who was appointed to the position last year.

Warnock has been outspoken about voter suppression and an advocate for reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act, and said he sees his political run as a part of his “spiritual stewardship.”

“I'm worried about the future of our country and the soul of our democracy,” he said.

Ebenezer Baptist Church was founded in 1886 by a former enslave, the Rev. John A. Parker, with 13 members on Airline Street. King’s maternal grandfather, the Rev. Alfred Daniel Williams, took over Ebenezer after Parker’s death, increasing membership and eventually moving the church to its current site on historic Auburn Avenue. The Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. became pastor in 1930 and was joined by his son as co-pastor in 1960.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks to members of his congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on April 30, 1967 as he urges America to repent and abandon what he called its "Tragic, reckless adventure in Vietnam."AP file

Warnock became the fifth senior pastor in Ebenezer’s 134-year history in 2005, joining a line of church leaders involved in civil rights issues, with the elder King fighting for voting rights before his son took up the cause.

In keeping with the church’s “moral legacy,” Warnock was arrested in 2014 during a protest outside the governor’s office in the state Capitol in Atlanta after then-Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, decided not to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Ebenezer, Warnock said, has always been “a church focused on issues in the public square, and about the implications of faith around issues of human dignity and justice.”

When Warnock takes the pulpit to pay tribute to Lewis on Thursday, he will do so as the pastor of one of the most influential churches in America, but also as a politician making his first run for office.

“When I consider the history of Ebenezer, and the legacy of someone like John Lewis, when presented with this opportunity, who am I to say, ‘No?’” Warnock said of his Senate candidacy. “I've got to do the best I can to continue the work that John Lewis and so many others left for us to do.”