Hammers pried out old nails. A pneumatic gun’s pressurized power drove in new nails. Band saws cut through new balcony flooring to replace the rot.
Montgomery, Alabama’s Holt Street Baptist Church, after nearly two decades of its doors being sealed and barricaded, was alive with the bangs, snaps and noise of construction on a recent January day. The smell of mildew and mold has been replaced with the scent of fresh sawdust and treated lumber.
The brick church at the corner of Bullock and South Holt streets is being rebuilt and renovated. Here on Dec. 5, 1955 — “the day of days” as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called it — the civil rights movement became a people’s movement.
About 7 p.m. on a chilly Monday night, 5,000 people packed the church and the streets surrounding it for the first mass meeting of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. No one was sure how many would show up, but show up they did.
They were Pullman car porters, barbers, housemaids and gas station attendants. They were school teachers and principals. They were pharmacists, insurance salesmen and business owners. They were the neighborhood kids.
A movement of people united started here at 903 Holt St.
“We were always known as not (sticking) together,” said Gwendolyn Bell, a lifelong Holt Street Baptist member who was at the church for the boycott’s first mass meeting. “But that night, it was like everybody was super-glued together.”
And here, in 2018, the leaders of the church want to make sure the congregation’s old worship center doesn’t fall apart anymore. They have poured $110,000 into the renovation so far, redoing the roof, laying plywood flooring, working on the balcony seats and replacing ceiling beams that rotted.
They are turning the church into a museum and a memorial to the day Montgomery’s African-Americans and the community’s black churches united to push back against oppression and degradation, said the Rev. Willie McClung, Holt Street Memorial Baptist Church pastor.
Because it means something.
“We knew this was important to black people in this city, to this state and the nation as a whole,” he said. “Now, we couldn’t afford it. We couldn’t afford to do two things at the same time.”
Since the congregation moved to its new church on South Court Street in 2001, its leaders have been slowly finishing the church that is now known as Holt Street Memorial Baptist Church. They are nearly complete.
It’s allowed them to pivot to the renewal of the old location, essentially unused since the congregation moved. The church is using funds raised through its nonprofit historical society to renovate. They want to have enough done by May so people can look inside, but church leaders recognize it could take two years to complete.
When they opened the doors to renovate, it wasn’t pretty. Bullets were shot through the roof. Water pipes were ripped out, even the organ pipes were gone. Sinks and urinals were pried off walls and removed by thieves. It was a mess.
Think about that for a moment. The place where America coursed a new path in 1955 had bullets shot through the ceiling. The church where Dr. King gave what he once called the “most decisive speech of his life” had been ripped apart. A sacred spot where African-Americans came together and said no more crumbled at the hands of vandals.
“I don’t care what they write or what they do. It started at Holt Street,” said church deacon Thomas Turner who is a board member of the historical society. “That’s why it is very important that we preserve that building and refurbish it just like it was.”
‘On fire for freedom’
The bus boycott started as a one-day event. On Dec. 5, Montgomery’s black church leaders met at the nearby Mount Zion AME, founded the Montgomery Improvement Association and named King its leader. They decided to extend the boycott and penned the resolutions for it that the people gathered at Holt Street Baptist were to vote on that night.
King later said in his memoir “Stride Toward Freedom” that it took him 15 minutes just to get through the crowd to the office of the Rev. A. W. Wilson, who was the church pastor.
People filled the church’s aisles and back rooms. They were downstairs in the fellowship hall, packed into the balcony, outside in the streets and on the house porches across Holt Street.
To get there, they walked past the Carver Theatre and Dr. Smiley’s dentist office. They passed the long-gone Pitts Drug Store and Arrington’s Sweet Shop. They came down Blount Street, Cleveland Avenue, Columbia Street and Jeff Davis Avenue.
They were “silent people, bundled in overcoats, performing what appeared to be a ritual,” Montgomery Advertiser city editor Joe Azbell wrote in a Dec. 7, 1955, column. He broke the first stories about the boycott.
“There were so many people that we couldn’t see,” said Bell, who was 10 at the time and asked by her mother to get to the church early to save seats in the pews. “We were afraid.”
It was tense, Willie Barnes said. He was there that night. He was 14 and asked by his father, who was a church deacon, to help find Dr. King to help him get into the church.
“We had never seen a crowd like that, that many people in one place” he said.
It was a lot of love that night, too, said Lorine Grant, who was a teenager there, rooted in the civil rights movement by her aunt and uncle who raised her.
For nearly everyone at the meeting, it’s difficult to explain the feeling that overcame thousands that night and eventually overturned years of segregation.
“No historian would ever be able fully to describe this meeting, and no sociologist would ever be able to interpret it adequately,” King wrote in his memoir. “One had to be a part of the experience really to understand it.”
“The Holt Street Baptist Church was probably in my lifetime so far, the most fired-up, enthusiastic gathering of human beings that I’ve ever seen,” Azbell said in 1985 to interviewers for the documentary “Eyes on the Prize.” ”. They were on fire for freedom. They were on fire, that at last this was going to be lifted off of them.”
King’s speech took the crowd to the precipice.
“Right here in Montgomery, when the history books are written in the future,” he said.
“Yes,” the crowd responded.
“Somebody will have to say, ‘There lived a race of people, a black people, fleecy locks and black complexion, a people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights,'” he said.
The crowd cheered.
“And thereby they injected a new meaning,” he said, “into the veins of history and of civilization.”
They boycotted the buses for 381 days. Houses were bombed. Polite, godly women who wore hats on Sunday and worked cleaning up after others were berated. Church and boycott leaders were arrested and fined. They stood together for nearly 13 months until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the segregation unconstitutional.
‘Montgomery’s moment in history’
It started with the people gathered at Holt Street. One night inside this brick church changed how we live as Americans, people who were there that night said.
“We were starting a movement that would gain national recognition,” King wrote in his memoir, “whose echoes would ring in the ears of people of every nation; a movement that would astound the oppressor, and bring new hope to the oppressed. That night was Montgomery’s moment in history.”
It’s not forgotten. It never will be, the Rev. McClung said.
Barnes, now in his 70s and a Holt Street church deacon, will pull his car up to the church from time to time. He thinks about what happened on Dec. 5, 1955. He thanks his father for raising him in it.
Even now as the church is nowhere near restored, travelers pull off the highway that split the neighborhood into parts to drive by Holt Street Baptist and Mt. Zion AME church up the street.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, a charter bus full of tourists stopped in front of Holt Street Baptist. No one got off the bus.
“That’s why I came in here with a fire,” McClung said. “Once I get it well publicized that it’s alive again, there will be a lot of visitation.”