StoryCorps Griot spent the last several Saturdays at Clayborn Temple A.M.E. Church. This historic church has been a rock in the community for decades. Clayborn is a house of worship, a sanctuary, a meeting place, and a great space for music and speakers. Wonderful acoustics and a large sanctuary made it an ideal place for gospel groups and artists like Mahalia Jackson and Sam Cooke, to perform. Two different participants fondly recalled seeing Ms. Jackson trip and stumble into the arms of one of her entourage as she got out of her limo. It was almost as if for a moment two little children got to see that a superstar wasn’t that different from them when coming home to Clayborn Temple.
Clayborn Temple served as an important meeting place for activists and organizers. The church was the meeting and rally point for organizing during the Sanitation Workers strike in 1968. A participant vividly remembered the warm smell of food welcoming organizers and demonstrators into the meetings. On March 28, 1968, when a peaceful demonstration lead by striking sanitation workers and Dr. King ended in chaos, hundreds upon hundreds of marchers fled to the sanctuary of Clayborn Temple. The violence of a small minority gave the police the opportunity they were waiting for to bomb, beat, and fire shots on the crowd. Police chased the demonstrators back to Clayborn Temple raining down a hail of rubber bullets and tear gas bombs as people crammed the space to capacity, huddling for safety. Participant and former pastor Irene Booker described the battered Church literally and metaphorically as a “symbol of the battle.” (Read more about “King’s Last Crusade”)
The church thrived into the 1980s continuing its determination to provide sanctuary and inspiration to the community. In a controversial move, the Church invited Minister Louis Farrakhan to speak at the temple. Although criticized for the decision it was another example of Clayborn Temple’s commitment to providing a sanctuary and meeting place for addressing and solving the problems facing the African-American Community.
Since that time Clayborn Temple has experienced ups and downs as the surrounding community has shifted, matching a nationwide trend. Downtown urban renewal projects, including Beale Street revitalization and construction of the FedEx Forum knocked down a lot of houses that were home to the Clayborn congregation. Currently, the A.M.E. church is in the process of raising money to perform necessary structural maintenance to this historic buidling that will ensure its survival. Clayborn Temple is closed during renovations and hopes to reopen as a community sanctuary.
Thank you to Charita Johnson-Burgess for her hard work coordinating interviews. Mrs. Johnson-Burgess is doing a lot of hard work to restore Clayborn Temple to its former grandeur. Good Luck.