South City

Clayborn Temple named a 'national treasure'

As the epicenter for the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike, Clayborn Temple received recognition as a National Treasure from the National Trust for Historic Preservation during a ceremony on October 25.

“Clayborn Temple is internationally significant because of its deep ties to the history of the civil rights movement. Clayborn’s engaged involvement with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership transformed the strike from a local labor dispute into a national issue,” said David Brown, executive vice president and chief preservation officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Less than 100 locations have received the honor.

“It’s a special day for Clayborn Temple, but also for our city. There far too many national lists that Memphis is a part of that we don’t want to be a part of. That portray some of the very difficult conditions that many Memphians find themselves living and growing up in that point to the fact in many ways lots of things have not changed in the last 40 years. 

But today we celebrate the fact that Memphis is on a national list that we are very proud to be on,” said Clayborn Reborn director Rob Thompson.

During the Memphis sanitation workers strike of 1968, the historic church served as headquarters for the strike and concomitant protests. Inside its Romanesque structure, civil rights, religious and strike leaders strategized, coordinated and inspired as the labor action dragged out and intensified.

One speaker at the ceremony was Kirk Whalum. His father, Rev. Kenneth Whalum, Sr., was a local pastor who served two terms on the Memphis City Council.

“I don’t have memories of fishing with my dad on Saturdays, or learning to work on a car. I’m fortunate to have other memories with my Dad. But so many of those Saturdays my Dad wasn’t available. Why? Because, Dad was here at Clayborn Temple or at some other black church doing what had to be done – organizing,” said Whalum.

Known affectionately as Reverend Daddy by congregants, Whalum, Sr. played a prominent role during the strike.

“Rev. Daddy was one of the many pastors who knew intrinsically that the civil rights movement wouldn’t move an inch forward without the spiritual guidance, the inspiration, the hands-on logistical and tactical assistance of pastors like one Rev. Martin Luther King.”

A Grammy-award winning musician, Whalum, Jr. left Memphis in the years following the strike. He had no plans to return. Eventually, he found his way home.

“When we left Memphis, we said we would never, ever come back. It takes growing up, sometimes, to realize where you should be,” said Whalum. 

Earle Randle, songwriter for Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records, played an original piece, “Clayborn Temple”, an ode to the “Grand Old Lady.” In addition, local poet Nubia Yasin recited a verse revealing the struggles of African-Americans past and present.

Recognized for its contributions to African-American culture, Clayborn Temple was founded as a church for white Memphians. Built in 1892, Second Presbyterian was once the largest church in the South. Following WWII, African-Americans moved into downtown areas in large numbers in the south and elsewhere. The church and its white congregation moved to East Memphis.

Purchased in 1949 by the A.M.E. church, it was renamed after its Bishop, J.M. Clayborn.

In the following years, it served not only as a church but as a civic and cultural center for many black Memphians.

Following the deaths of garbage collectors Echol Cole and Robert Walker by a malfunctioning truck on February 1968, Clayborn Temple took on another role.

Striking sanitation workers would march from the church to City Hall daily. In the sanctuary, a boycott of local businesses was plotted. As resistance to the strike grew, so did support from Memphis’ African-American community. Soon, the strike started grabbing headlines nationally.

On March 28, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. traveled to Memphis to support the strike. That day, 15,000 marchers congregated outside Clayborn Temple. As the usual route was taken from the church to city hall, violence erupted. Peaceful marchers and rioters alike were attacked by police using mace, clubs and rifles.

The church provided temporary sanctuary. Police surrounded and raided the building. Fleeing strike supporters broke the church’s stained glass windows to escape. Others were beaten and bloodied.

As the day drew to a close, four-thousand National Guard troops moved into the city. Hundreds were arrested. Dozens were injured. A 16-year-old African-American, Larry Payne, was killed by police.

King returned to Memphis on April 3 to deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. The next day, he was assassinated on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel.

Both the civil rights movement and Clayborn Temple declined in the years that followed. The church closed in 1999. Empty, it fell into disrepair.

In 2015, it was reopened by Clayborn Reborn, an organization formed to honor the historic church.

Downtown Church relocated to Clayborn the following year. It has also hosted community events as well as film and music events.

“Today is exactly one year since I stood on this stage. One year, and we had what we call a blessing ceremony to reopen Clayborn Temple to the public. It had been shuttered for 18 years and today, by coincidence is the anniversary of that,” said Thompson.

Next April, Clayborn Temple will honor the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. King as well as the pivotal sanitation workers' strike.

“To the members of Local 1733, and the men and their families who stood up and risked everything to speak truth to power to a government that was elected to serve them and yet stood opposed to them, we thank you for your service today in our city and for the courage of those who came before you,” said Thompson.

Rehabilitation work on the church will begin in 2019. With the help of Representative Steve Cohen, the National Park Service has provided a $400,000 grant to stabilize the roof. They also received a $250,000 grant from the National Fund for Sacred Places, a national historic trust program. These funds will be used to restore the exterior shell while stabilizing the interior.

“At the National Trust, we believe we must preserve and protect places like Clayborn Temple to help tell a deeper, broader and more inclusive story of our nation’s history,” said Brown.

Read more articles by Kim and Jim Coleman.

Kim Coleman is a journalist with over 20 years of experience in newsrooms as a reporter, editor and graphic designer, including ten years with The Commercial Appeal as Design Director/Senior Editor and Print Planning Editor. 


Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.

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