We say that the historic Tabernacle Baptist Church is where Christian stewardship and social justice intersect. We visualize it in the image of the cross, with Christian stewardship being the vertical with Christ at the head, down to the foot and that’s the foundation. And then, the arms of the cross is where we use our hands, our feet, our tongues, everything that we have, in order to help others through social justice.
This church was started in 1884, shortly after slavery, really. We don’t know how Tabernacle ancestors were able to purchase this plot of land in downtown Selma, in the days of segregation. But, it was done.
David T. West. The more we know about Mr. West, the more we realize how much of a, really a miracle it is, that God gave him the vision to see this edifice. The colored congregants could not use the front entrance, they could only use the side entrance. But Mr. West built the two entrances, to be identical. We say that that was a direct slap at Jim Crow laws.
I remember vividly the very first time that I came to this church and standing at the pulpit was Dr. D.V. Jemison. He had a booming voice that just reverberated throughout the entire sanctuary. And of course, at the same time there was a choir that was behind him, and then there was another choir that was up in the balcony. I thought it was the most impressive thing I had ever seen.
Social justice was permeated within this congregation from the pulpit, and it fell upon the ears of several members of the church. So that, beginning in the 1920s, there was an underground voter registration campaign going on in Selma, and we had members of this congregation who were active participants in it. It really lifted its head most visibly during the 1960s and that was, of course, when the first mass meeting for voting rights started.
There was a young name by the name of Bernard Lafayette. He became acquainted with several members of the Dallas County Voter’s League. Many of those underground sessions were held here, in what was known then as the basement of the church.
One of the persons who was a part of the Dallas County Voter’s League was Samuel Boynton. Mr. Boynton passed, and Bernard Lafayette sent out an appeal to all of the ministers in the town. “Well, we want to have a mass meeting, in conjunction with Mr. Boynton’s memorial service.”
Nobody wanted to have the mass meeting. Well, Reverend Anderson had just come to Selma as an educated, arrogant, dynamic personality from Chicago. So he said, “Okay. You want to have a mass meeting? Come to Tabernacle. We can have it there.”
That first mass meeting was attended by approximately 300 persons. As everyone was exiting the building, there was a group of young white males that came up to the front steps of the church and they came equipped with table legs from one of the local manufacturing factories. It was their intent to beat everybody as they walked down these steps. But suddenly, out of the blue, there was a voice that said, “Go home.” We later learned that that was one of the football coaches, from a white high school. He recognized the white young boys and had he not been there, there would have been a bloodbath here that particular night.
We haven’t really told the story to our children. That there was just so much that happened before the bridge. That there was a beginning that was a foundation. There was underground work. There were everyday working people, who made sacrifices for the bridge to happen. If they only know about the bridge, they have missed the true story of the struggle. Because it is through the people, where you actually know what they had to endure on a daily basis, in order to be able to even get to the bridge.