The Rev. John Hurst Adams, a nationwide religious and civil rights leader, a contemporary of Martin Luther King Jr., a Columbia native and one of the strongest voices for removing the Confederate flag from the S.C. State House dome, died Wednesday.
Adams stood out in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and among activists in the nation’s fight for racial justice, bringing the two platforms together for a time in South Carolina.
“He had zero tolerance for injustice,” said J.T. McLawhorn, director of the Columbia Urban League who worked with Adams addressing social justice issues in the state for years. “He was not just a rabble-rouser just to cause disruption. He was concerned about the betterment of society as a whole.”
Adams was born Nov. 27, 1927, and grew up in Columbia’s Waverly neighborhood. He graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in Columbia before studying at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, Boston University, Union Theological Seminary and Harvard University.
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He attended Boston University at the same time as King.
Adams would later join many King-led demonstrations, including the famed civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama.
Decades later, Adams was among those who fought for South Carolina to recognize King’s birthday as a state holiday. (South Carolina was the last state in the nation to do so.)
Before returning to his home state in 1992 as a bishop of the AME Church, Adams shepherded AME members across the country, including as pastor of Seattle’s First AME Church, the oldest in the state of Washington, in the 1960s. There, he became one of Seattle’s foremost civil rights leaders.
While later serving the church for eight years in South Carolina, Adams’ religious platform put him close to the ears of many of the state’s political leaders, of whom he was unabashedly critical at times.
Adams never bit his tongue, said Bobby Donaldson, a civil rights historian at the University of South Carolina, where Adams’ collection of personal papers is housed with his father’s.
“He was respectful, but if he thought you were on the wrong side of an issue, on the wrong side of history, he would tell you,” Donaldson said.
Adams continued to use his platform to further the fight for social justice issues, including the removal of the Confederate flag from the S.C. State House dome.
“If Johnny Reb wants to hang a Confederate flag on the antenna of his pickup truck while he spits tobacco out the window, that’s his privilege. That’s his truck,” Adams said at a State House march in 1994. “But that house on Main Street belongs as much to me as it does to anybody else in the state.”
The flag was removed from the dome in 2000.
Former S.C. Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges frequently sought out Adams to consult on the debate about the flag at the turn of the millennium.
“When I called, he dropped everything he was doing to try to help and resolve issues on the flag,” Hodges told The State newspaper in 2000. “He and I had the type of relationship where, when he agreed with me, he’d tell me, and when he didn’t, he’d tell me. And I liked that.”
In whatever he did, Adams considered first “what’s in it for the people? How can we better serve all of South Carolina and help the people?” AME Bishop Ronnie Brailsford said.
Adams was “an example of ebony excellence” and a “spiritual father” to countless believers, said Brailsford, whom Adams appointed to pastor Bethel AME Church in Columbia in 1992. Brailsford now presides over AME churches and schools in five African countries.
Beyond his religious and political pulpits, Adams’ career included serving as president of Paul Quinn College in Waco, Tex., and on the board of trustees for Allen University in Columbia. He also founded the Congress of National Black Churches, which coordinated black churches of all denominations from around the country.
Adams’ AME tenure in South Carolina ended in 2000, and he retired from the AME church in 2004.
He was 90 years old when he died Wednesday.
Adams is survived by his wife, Dolly Desselle Adams, a social justice influencer in her own right, who lives in Atlanta. They had three children and eight grandchildren.
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.