About Bethel Baptist Church
The site of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, played a crucial role in the fledgling American Civil Rights movement. From 1956 until 1961 Bethel Baptist Church was the headquarters of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights which strove to ensure equal rights for Black Americans through non-violent means.
As well as serving as the headquarters for this group, the Bethel Baptist Church was a key site during the 1961 Freedom Ride. The church building was also attacked 3 times by extremists, in 1956, 1958 and 1962. Today the Bethel Baptist Church holds a small museum to the Civil Rights movement.
Bethel Baptist Church history
The Bethel Baptist Church was built in 1926 but was organised in 1904. It was not until the 1950s, however, that the church gained notoriety as an organising space for the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. The ACMHR was a civil rights organisation that coordinated boycotts and sponsored lawsuits aimed at dismantling segregation. The organisation was established in May 1956 by the then pastor of Bethel Baptist Church, Fred Shuttleworth, who served as president until 1969.
Shuttleworth was also one of the founding group of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which included Martin Luther King Jr and Ella Baker. Resultantly, Shuttleworth alienated some congregation members by dividing his time – unevenly – between activism and church ceremonies such as weddings and daily church functions.
During his time at Bethel Baptist Church, several attempts on his life and to destroy the church by white supremacists (including members and supporters of the Ku Klux Klan) were made. On one such occasion in 1958, a nearby church goer saw the bomb placed by the church and moved it to the street before it went off. The police and Klan supporters often allowed for mob violence to attack civil rights activists.
In 1961, Shuttleworth and the Bethel Baptist Church congregation played a momentous role in the Freedom Rides. The activists taking part challenged the racist status quo by riding the interstate buses in mixed racial groups. The Freedom Rides bolstered the Civil Rights movement and attracted so much attention that the Supreme Court ruled to desegregate public transport.
In 2005, the church was added to the National Register of Historical Places and declared a National Historic Landmark.
Bethel Baptist Church today
Today, Bethel Baptist Church is still open for services as it remained since 1904 and throughout the civil rights conflicts of the 1950s and 60s. The damage and general wear the church has sustained led to further buildings being added to the complex, but the original church still stands and is open for visitors to take tours of the historic church which you should book in advance.
The Bethel Baptist Church is also part of a wider tour that provides a comprehensive history of the church’s role within the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham.
Getting to Bethel Baptist Church
Located at the intersection of 33rd Street North and 29th Avenue North, Bethel Baptist Church is easily found via public transport around Birmingham. The bus stop on the corner is along the 23 bus route. For those driving from outside Birmingham, the church is off routes 20, 59 and 31. There is parking just outside.
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