Conversations of Church and State
By Margaret Treanor
There have been few times in history where a representation of religion is so prominent in society that it changes how the public perceives religion. One of these poignant events was the moment when three Birmingham ministers fell to their knees in prayer when met by police during march on Palm Sunday 1963. This moment in history is one of the most crucial and important events in the relation between religion and civil rights in Birmingham. A limestone sculpture representing this emotional scene now stands in Kelly Ingram Park. To this day, this sculpture is a reminder of those who were and continue to be directly affected by discrimination and the protests against it. The location, creation, and use of this sculpture shows the very important role of Civil Rights Monuments.
Influence of the Sculpture
On April 7, 1963, three well-known Birmingham ministers led a protest in response to the arrests of Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and Fred Shuttlesworth. Standing in front of 2,000 marchers and Public Safety Commissioner Bull Conner and his police, the three men knelt in prayer over the city of Birmingham and the hearts of their adversaries.
Three faces and their bodies are exhibited across the front of the large sculpture as seen in Figure 1, each displaying different body positions and facial expressions. One of these men was John Thomas Porter. He was greatly influenced by the more famous Martin Luther King Jr. During Porter’s student years, he served as King’s pulpit assistant at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. In 1962, Porter served as pastor at Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, a position he held until 2000. He also worked in Alabama legislature from 1974 to1989, and served as a key pastoral contact for the Birmingham Campaign. More specifically in the legislature, Porter worked as an Alabama State Representative for Alabama House District 39 until 1977. He then went served on the Alabama State Board of Pardons and Paroles until 1989. Along with his roles within the church and state, Porter also played a very prominent role in the nonviolent campaign to desegregate Birmingham (“Porter”). Due to his fondness and respect for Dr. King, Porter found himself on his knees in prayer on the day of April 7, 1963.
Kneeling alongside Porter is Nelson H. Smith. Much like Porter, Smith spent a great deal of his life serving different churches across the southeast. Before finding a home at New Pilgrim Baptist Church in Birmingham, he tended to jump around and only spend a few years at each church. Smith was known as “Fireball” when it came to his preaching because it sounded as if he was reciting a poem with perfect cadence and theatrical hand gestures. This type of preaching did him well because the congregation of New Pilgrim grew to more than one thousand during his ministry (“Nelson H. Smith”). Some of Smith’s strongest sermons were the ones that advocated for the advancement of African Americans.
The third figure represented in this sculpture is Alfred Daniel Williams King, otherwise known as A.D. King, and he was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s younger brother. King took a different path when it came to school and life. At seventeen years old, he ended up starting his own family with Naomi Barber and together they had five children. During his youth, he strongly resister his father’s attempt to pursue a ministerial career path, but later found himself on that road. When living in Birmingham, he pastored at First Baptist Church of Ensley and, like Porter, served as a leader of the Birmingham Campaign. A.D. King spent most of his pastoral years working with and helping his older brother when it came to both the church and the Civil Rights Movement (“King, Alfred Daniel Williams”). He stood his ground stubbornly when it came to keeping protests and campaigns non-violent.
Kelly Ingram Park
All three of these men have ties to both church ministry and the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham Kelly Ingram Park was originally known as West Park, but in 1932 was renamed after local firefighter, Osmond Kelly Ingram, who was the first sailor in the U.S. Navy to be killed in World War I. Located right in downtown Birmingham, this park sits across the street from the historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the first African American church in Birmingham (“Experience History”). During the Civil Rights Movement, the park and the surrounding streets became the epicenter for non-violent protests and marches. Nowadays, this park is filled with all sorts of Civil Rights monuments, not just the one of the three praying ministers. It also includes detailed and vivid sculptures of police dogs and fire hose assaults on protestors (“Kelly Ingram Park”). Specifically, the sculptures of “The Salute to the Foot Soldiers” and “Martin Luther King Jr.” are also displayed to portray the heroic efforts of those who dedicated their lives to changing the dynamic in the United States. Nowadays, Kelly Ingram Park provides visitors with a guided audio tour through their mobile devices. Because of the historic location of this park and all that had happened in Birmingham during the Civil Rights Movement, the location of this statue plays a major role in understanding the sculpture and why it was placed there.
When Kelly Ingram Park was under renovation in the sculpture was commissioned to be placed in the park. Raymond Kaskey, the creator of this sculptor, was initially asked to create the three praying ministers to directly reflect the three men who prayed on that day in April of 1963. He designed it like this but then not soon after, he got word from Shuttlesworth and a few others that they wanted the faces to not only reflect the men, but to represent all of the ministers that played a role in the Civil Rights Movement (Hickerson). When discussing how to portray the faces on the statue, the argument was made that Porter, Smith, and King were not the only ministers who played a role in the civil rights movement. This argument stuck and Kaskey designed the faces to represent all African American ministers that sacrificed regarding the Civil Rights Movement.
Christianity and the Civil Rights Movement
The question that remains is what this sculpture represents and displays when one looks at the image. This sculpture is one of the few pieces of art in Kelly Ingram Park, as well as the greater Birmingham area, that displays a religious act in the context of a political movement. This is a rare find due to the societal and governmental ideal that church and state should and have been remaining separately. James Findley talks about this in an article published in The Journal of American History. He mentions that the conversation that started among the churches when the Civil Rights Movement began was the first time in a while that the church joined in a political movement (Findley 66). The Three Kneeling Ministers statue sits in Kelly Ingram Park as a representation of this conversation being started and it demonstrates just how important this conversation is.
The conversation is simple: in America, each citizen has the right to separate church and state, but in few circumstances, one can see these ideals collide. The Three Kneeling Ministers statue in Kelly Ingram Park is one of those circumstances. The statue sits as a representation to the public that Birmingham’s history is a complicated one with a considerable number of ups and downs, yet it also shows just how far this city has come. The public sees this statue daily and each time a person sees it, it continues the conversation of how a religious event can impact society to the point of a political change. Even though the civil rights being fought for did not just appear as soon as that prayer was prayed by Porter, Smith, and King, the result it had in connecting the African American ministers of the time to this specific political movement was and is astonishing.
“Three Kneeling Ministers”
Artist: Raymond Kaskey
Location: Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, Alabama
“Experience History.” 16th Street Baptist Church, 2020, 16thstreetbaptist.org/history-2/.
Findlay, James F. “Religion and Politics in the Sixties: The Churches and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” The Journal of American History, vol. 77, no. 1, 1990, pp. 66–92. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2078639. Accessed 16 Sept. 2020
Hickerson, Patrick. “Civil Rights Statue Gains Plaque to Honor Ministers.” Al, 9 Jan. 2009, http://www.al.com/spotnews/2009/01/civil_rights_statue_gains_plaq.html.
“Kelly Ingram Park.” Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau – Birmingham, AL, www.birminghamal.org/listings/kelly-ingram-park/.
“King, Alfred Daniel Williams.” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, 4 Apr. 2018, kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/king-alfred-daniel-williams.
“Nelson H. Smith.” Bhamwiki, 4 June 2013, www.bhamwiki.com/w/Nelson_H._Smith.
“Porter, John Thomas.” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, 5 June 2018, kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/porter-john-thomas,
“Three Ministers Kneeling.” Bhamwiki, 10 Sept. 2015, www.bhamwiki.com/w/Three_Ministers_Kneeling
Margaret Treanor ‘24 was a student in the first-year seminar on Religious Images in Birmingham (UCCA 102) in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in Fall 2020.
Published November 19, 2020.