LeRoy Woodson’s Black Church

“Sixth Avenue Baptist Church- NARA 545484,” captured by LeRoy Woodson in July 1972 (Courtesy of Environmental Protection Agency / Wikimedia Commons)

As detailed in the previous installment of my series on race and DOCUMERICA, LeRoy Woodson’s work on the Environmental Protection Agency’s landmark photography project took him to Birmingham, Alabama, during the summer of 1972. Woodson’s DOCUMERICA assignment highlighted the scale of Birmingham’s environmental problems and demonstrated that its nicknames of “Smoke City” and the “Pittsburgh of the South” were well-earned. By the early 1970s, the combination of heavy industry, poor regulation, and Birmingham’s natural landscape had “created a lethal toxic brew throughout the valley.” Dr. Ben Branscomb, a pulmonologist based at the University of Alabama and one of the state’s most prominent clean-air activists, decried the city’s high rates of respiratory and lung conditions and described endemic emphysema as “a disease we built for ourselves.”

Many of the city’s most pressing environmental problems were linked to its steel and mining industries—which had dominated Birmingham’s economy since the Gilded Age. As one of a handful of Black photographers contracted to produce DOCUMERICA assignments, Woodson paid particular attention to smog, acid rain, and other pollutants generated by manufacturers such as US Steel, and the disproportionate impact of these hazards on Black communities. In neighborhoods such as Little Korea, a combination of race, class, and occupational discrimination left Black residents uniquely vulnerable to industrial pollution. However, Woodson also sought to develop a more rounded depiction of Black life in Birmingham that showcased activism, community pride, and the enduring importance of a major neighborhood institution: the Black Church.

While it is far beyond the scope of this short article to effectively outline the history and impact of the Black Church—a term I use here in relation to majority Black congregations or denominational affiliations such as National Baptist Convention and the African Methodist Episcopal Church—it is worth reiterating the criticality of the Black Church to the development of Black communities on both a local and national level. In their landmark 1990 study, The Black Church in the African American Experience, C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya describe the Black church as “the cultural womb of the black community,” which helped to birth new Black institutions, provided “an academy and an era for political activities,” and nurtured musical, dramatic, and artistic development.

This was certainly true of the Black church in Birmingham, which remains home to some of the South’s oldest Black congregations. As Wilson Fallin demonstrates, the role of the Black Church as “the central institution” within Birmingham’s Black community can be traced from the antebellum period into the post-World War II civil rights era, with local Black ministers such as Fred Shuttleworth, John Alford, and John Cross Jr. assuming a prominent role in the struggle of racial justice. In 1956, more than 1,000 people attended a meeting at Alford’s Sardis Baptist Church to help found the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Seven years later, the ACMHR collaborated with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to organize the Birmingham campaign, a pivotal turning point in the Black freedom struggle. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. highlighted both the importance of Birmingham’s Black churches and the racist violence they faced, with “more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation.” Several months later, Shuttleworth’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which had been a key rallying point during the Birmingham campaign, was dynamited by members of the Ku Klux Klan. This shocking act of white terrorism claimed the lives of four young Black girls—Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair.

Of particular interest to Woodson was the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, which had been founded in 1881 on the corner of Sixth Avenue, South and Sixteenth Street. Under the leadership of the Reverend John Thomas Porter, Sixth Avenue played a prominent role in the Birmingham campaign and hosted the funerals of three of the four girls killed in the bombing of its sister church. In 1969, Sixth Avenue broke ground on a new church on Montevallo Road in southwest Birmingham, and its first ceremony was held in the Spring of 1970. This impressive new facility features in a number of Woodson’s DOCUMERICA images, with the photographer alternating between wide-angle shots emphasizing the size of Sixth Avenue’s congregation— and, by extension, its continuing importance as a community hub – and more intimate shots of individual worshippers.

Woodson’s images also showcased Sixth Avenue’s importance in the “arena of political activities,” most notably through its involvement in organizing Black political participation. In addition to serving as an electoral station where members of the community could cast their ballots, Sixth Avenue provided buses to get local Black residents to the polls, ensuring that they could make their voices heard.

Through documenting such activities, Woodson sought to curate a more holistic portrayal of Birmingham’s Black community, echoing the work of other DOCUMERICA contributors such as John H. White, whose vibrant visual portrait of Black Chicago went far beyond simply cataloging pollution and other environmental concerns.

More broadly, by placing images of Sixth Avenue in conversation with images of environmental crisis, Woodson gestured towards the important role that Black churches would come to play in the struggle for environmental justice. As major Black civic institutions, Black churches remain committed to addressing all manner of concerns impacting their congregation and the wider African American community— including environmental concerns. It is no coincidence that a Black minister, the Reverend Benjamin Chavis Jr., is widely credited with coining the term “environmental racism” during his tenure at the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice. As Black theologist James Cone attests, the knowledge that people of color are disproportionately impacted by environmental pollution has “angered the black church community and fired up its leadership to take a more active role in fighting against environmental racism” over recent decades. Read together, Woodson’s photographs of Birmingham’s environmental crisis and Sixth Avenue Baptist Church both speak to and pre-empt these developments, reminding us of the longstanding role of the Black church in the struggle for racial and environmental justice.

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E. James West

E. James West is a UK-based writer and historian, currently working as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Northumbria University Newcastle. Her is the author of 'Lerone Bennett, Jr. EBONY Magazine and Popular Black History' (University of Illinois Press). Follow him on Twitter @ejwestuk.