When Mayor Steve Benjamin today formally unveils Columbia’s part in a seven-city commemoration of the year 1963, he will step in front of Zion Baptist Church, a sanctuary that served as both the launch point and the conclusion of dozens of civil rights protests and demonstrations in the city.
The historic church at 801 Washington St. was once an anchor of a growing black community that stretched from Blossom Street to the Congaree River, its leaders spreading the Baptist faith even before the church’s official founding in 1865, at the end of the Civil War. The congregation first met on Gadsden Street before moving to Washington Street in 1871.
Nearly a century later, during the turmoil of the 1960s, Zion, along with another downtown church, Bethel AME, became the heart of the movement to overturn segregation and eliminate the last vestiges of a system known as Jim Crow. Young protesters picketed Columbia-area lunch counters and businesses, seeking the right to go about their business without the debilitating signs that declared “colored section” and “whites only,” then returned to the church for prayer and emotional sustenance.
“Zion was the hub,” Isaac Washington, 70, a deacon who participated in dozens of downtown civil rights protests as a student at Benedict College, recalled Tuesday.
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“Everything, everything, happened at Zion,” Washington said. “If you protested, if you picketed, if you demonstrated, you didn’t even have to say, ‘Where are you going to meet at?’ Zion was it.”
For its role in the movement, protesters affectionately referred to the classical brick church as “Big Zion.” The church’s elders were more subtle, said Melvin Pearson, a deacon who broke the color barrier at the Veterans Administration when he became the VA’s first black admissions clerk.
Zion pastors did not preach from the pulpit about the inequities of segregation, he said, because they knew that adult church members were beholden to white employers for their paychecks.
“A lot of blacks were employed by white people,” Pearson, 75, said. Teachers, too, could not openly advocate for change or align themselves with the NAACP, the civil rights organization that planned most of the marches.
As a young girl, Ruth L. James wanted to join the marchers but she knew that would put her father’s job at risk: “He worked at the Columbia Hotel and I could not demonstrate.”
Some members provided funds to bail protesters out of jail, and church fathers made it clear the church would have an open-door policy to those marching in the streets.
Calvernetta Williams believes that openness under adversity was fostered by the culture in the church.
“You had a lot of educated people here who had been up North, who had been other places,” said Williams, whose late father-in-law, funeral home owner A.P. Williams Jr., quietly provided financial support for the movement. “You had doctors and lawyers; even the ones who had not been to college, their minds were not of slavery, but that of sophistication.
“You never would have known they didn’t have a high-school degree or a college degree because they believed in education, and all their kids were educated, even if they were not.”
S.C. Appeals Judge Jasper Cureton, now semiretired and a Zion trustee, already had lived in New York and served in the military when he returned to Columbia in 1963. “Not much had changed,” he said. He spent a year at S.C. State’s law school, then gained entrance to USC’s law school, where he graduated second in his class in 1967 and became its first black graduate since Reconstruction. Through his life, Zion has been a bedrock for his Christian faith.
Orangeburg photographer Cecil J. Williams recorded a March 1963 rally at Zion. In the photograph, men in dark suits, and women in dresses and heels, march down the aisles while NAACP leaders J. Arthur Brown and the Rev. I. DeQuincey Newman speak at the podium. One woman carries a sign that reads: “Segregated, we fight Communism with a dull sword,” a reference to America’s Cold War with the Soviet Union.
“During those days most of the activities were emotional and energy-packed,” said Williams, who will be at today’s news conference. “As a photographer, I moved around kind of briskly and didn’t have a chance to participate in the energy.”
But Williams’ lens captured scenes that might not have been reported by mainstream white media. Williams circulated his photographs to traditional black media venues such as Jet magazine and the Pittsburgh Courier as well as The Associated Press and United Press International.
“I would be called in by the NAACP and if there was something happening, they would inform me,” Williams said. “If there was anything to do, I. DeQuincey Newman would call. He was very aware that since there was much blackout of the news, the only way to get information out was to report it ourselves.”
Zion, Williams said, “was then and is now an institution that really made itself available for the community to participate. They had the space, they had the enthusiasm and most of the time, they had the leadership.” He likened Zion and Bethel to Trinity United Methodist Church in Orangeburg, which served as the rallying point for that city’s protests.
Zion remains the launching point for the annual King Day at the Dome rally, held each Martin Luther King Day, although the black neighborhood that once surrounded it — a neighborhood filled with little shotgun houses, small shops and dirt streets — is long gone. Now, Zion is landlocked, with the Columbia Police Department its neighbor to the northeast and the Congaree Vista, with its restaurants and bars, a stone’s throw away toward the south.
There are a fewer members of Zion now, compared to 1,500 at its peak. But those who are there remain faithful to its mission of Christian outreach and social justice.
“I’ll tell you what, you felt safe when you came here,” said Washington, who was swept up in the 1961 march around the State House that resulted in hundreds of arrests. “When you got out of jail, you came to Zion.”