The historic Memphis church that served as a central point in the civil rights movement and in the resistance action that marked Rev. Martin Luther King’s final days is being revitalized so that new generations will know the pivotal role it played.
The Clayborn Temple, housed in a 19th century structure served as one of the centers of activity when King came to the city to support the sanitation workers strike. The March 28, 1968 march led by King, turned violent when police and protesters clashed on the iconic Beale Street. it was at Clayborn that the iconic “I Am A Man” signs were distributed to marchers.
The church, along with Mason Temple and Centenary Methodist Church as well as other locations provided the backdrop for the events of that week including King’s assassination and ultimately the sanitation workers securing the pay raise they desired.
But Clayborn temple fell into disrepair in the years after that and was shuttered and empty, eventually overshadowed by the modern FedEx Forum sports arena across the street.
But thanks to a group interested in preserving the history, the church is now returning to glory as one of the most significant buildings associated with the civil rights movement in the South. Work to stabilize the building is complete. Now, the goal is to fix up the church for meetings, religious ceremonies, community events and other gatherings.
Fred Davis, a former Memphis City Council member who walked next to King during the 1968 march, said the Clayborn Temple was a symbol of the civil rights activities of the 1960s that is being brought back to life.
“It can be a place for recreation, education, and communication that can take place for citizens of all hues and convictions in this city,” said Davis.
Last year, a group called Clayborn Reborn announced it was renovating the church. The effort was boosted when the National Park Service announced a $400,000 grant for renovations.
The church needs work. Trusses need to be shored up, the floor must be refurbished, beams require strengthening or replacing. Rob Thompson, director of the Clayborn Reborn project, estimates that $10 million must be raised to pay for renovations. The goal is to open the church at the end of 2019 or early 2020, Thompson said.
For years, the church was among the most visible structures in Memphis. The cornerstone was laid in 1891, and it was dedicated in 1893 by the Second Presbyterian Church.
Built in the Romanesque Revival style, it boasted a limestone exterior, hardwood floors, curved pews, a majestic organ, and a 110-foot tower topped with a 120-foot spire. The spire and pews are long gone, but the tower, organ and parts of the original floor remain. The church bell sits in an alcove, ready to be re-installed.
After 50 years, the Second Presbyterians moved away. The African Methodist Episcopal Church, or AME Church, bought Clayborn Temple for about $100,000.
Sanitation workers started striking in February 1968 after two men were killed while working on a garbage truck. Workers wanted to unionize, and fought for higher pay and safer working conditions. City officials declared the strike illegal and arrested scores of strikers and protesters.
The Clayborn Temple hosted nightly meetings and was a staging point for marches to City Hall, historians say. King, Davis and hundreds more gathered at the temple before the 1968 Beale Street march.
Police broke it up after storefront windows were smashed. A 16-year-old was killed. Marchers retreated to the temple. Police fired tear gas inside and people broke stained-glass to escape.
King promised to lead a second, peaceful march in Memphis, but he was killed by a sniper while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4.
AME’s congregation eventually moved out, and suburbanization and economic stagnation hurt the once-thriving downtown area. The church has been vacant for 25 years, plagued by water damage and neglect.
Clayborn Temple was placed on the National Register of Historic Places for its local significance in 1979. Clayborn Reborn has applied for inclusion on the register for its national importance.
Thompson said he feels that King’s assassination may have overshadowed the sanitation workers’ strike.
Making Clayborn Temple whole again could change that.
“My thesis is, had King not been killed here, Memphis would be known for the sanitation strike the way that Selma is known for ‘Bloody Sunday’ and Montgomery was known for the bus boycott,” Thompson said. “Their story really hasn’t been made part of our collective consciousness.”
Visit Clayborn Temple’s website at: www.claybornreborn.org.