Houston Bryan Roberson.  Fighting the Good Fight:  The Story of the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, 1865-1977.  New York and London:  Routledge, 2005.  xxi + 248 pages.  ISBN 0-415-94920-3.  Reviewed by Julia Brock, for the Journal of Southern Religion. 

In 1978, Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church set for itself the task of enshrining Martin Luther King, Jr. and his role in the Civil Rights movement.  This decision may have seemed like a natural transition for the church; by then, it already lived in historical memory largely because of King's pastorate there in the 1950s and both his and the church's involvement in the Montgomery bus boycott.  Houston Bryan Roberson illustrates that this resolution on the part of the congregation was, however, another manifestation of a longstanding tension that pervaded Dexter Avenue's mission – that of providing spiritual ministry to the larger community and fostering social awareness and activism.

. . . Roberson maintains that, despite being restrained by class consciousness, Dexter Avenue was a bulwark to the black community in Montgomery, a free space that at once allowed for self-expression and empowerment in an otherwise hostile social milieu.  


Certainly, these two callings are not mutually exclusive, but Roberson shows throughout his history of Dexter Avenue that the elite status of the congregants often limited (and, in some ways, bolstered) the church's role both in overtly challenging normative institutions of white supremacy and effectively ministering to a broad base of black worshippers.  Class, in fact, is a recurring theme in Roberson's monograph, which he begins with the church's founding after the Civil War and follows for six generations thereafter.  Putting his work in line with scholars such as Donna Irvin and Samuel Freedmen, Roberson maintains that, despite being restrained by class consciousness, Dexter Avenue was a bulwark to the black community in Montgomery, a free space that at once allowed for self-expression and empowerment in an otherwise hostile social milieu.  In recounting the historically significant events and leaders of the church as well as the quotidian aspects of its organizational operation, Roberson hopes to illuminate “the ways in which institutional religion provided both moral training and service to the community in a local setting over time” (xvi).

Roberson divides his chapters into specific phases of the church's development, but he nicely threads important themes throughout.  One such emphasis concerns the relationship between Dexter Avenue's ministers and council of deacons.  The church garnered a notorious relationship for maintaining a powerful deaconate, one that often came into direct conflict with ambitious ministers.  Oftentimes the deacons had the final say in church affairs, including when to dismiss an unresponsive pastor.  But Roberson also notes the important relationship of the minister in setting church policy and programs; one of his objectives for the work is to illustrate the methods that these different men used to influence the course of the church's history.  He broadly categorizes the pastors of Dexter Avenue as either having an “organizational focus” or a “prophetic focus” (196).  Those who were more concerned with organizational church efforts spent much time bolstering church finances, creating programs for community service, and responding to the ebbs of church membership.  Alternatively, there were those pastors, such as R.C. Judkins, Vernon Johns, and Martin Luther King, Jr., whose strong belief in the Social Gospel and adherence to black liberation theology prevailed in their sermons and prompted a shift in consciousness (though often subtle) among congregants. 

Roberson argues that ministers were indeed important for ushering in the transformation of an accomodationist mindset to one more accustomed to social activism.  Racial uplift strategies that were squarely grounded in the church's middle-class demographic became outdated by the 1950s as congregants embraced more direct ways to confront their second-class status as black citizens.  Roberson is careful to note, however, that even in the early stages of the church ministers such as Judkins, who adhered to racial accommodation, vigorously encouraged members to vote – a direct challenge to white supremacy.  By the early twentieth century, the church had also established auxiliary groups and mission societies, sponsored prestigious guest lecturers, and offered Men's and Women's Days to affirm black personhood and educate the broader community.  But Dexter Avenue remained staunch in its efforts to minister to the spiritual needs of the community, with less emphasis on social activism, until Vernon Johns stepped into the pulpit in the 1940s.  A fiery preacher who had little patience for middle class propriety, Johns reminded the congregation of the immorality of Jim Crow and their duty to confront white supremacy directly.  Although Johns won few converts at the time, Roberson credits him with having laid the foundation for the activism that took place among congregants during the Civil Rights movement.  When Martin Luther King, Jr. took over the pastorate of Dexter Avenue in 1954, the congregation was more open to action when the bus boycott began (an event that surprised King and his parishioners).  During this time, church activities and auxiliaries also flourished – the church's dual mission of secular and spiritual service now seemed to have struck a harmonious balance.

But this balance was not to last.  Roberson carries his history beyond the Civil Rights movements and into the 1970s when the church was officially renamed the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church.  He argues that this move, while still a display of self-determination, has nonetheless distanced the church from its once vibrant role as a spiritual cornerstone of the community.  He warns that the memorialization efforts of the church risk making it “a museumlike institution rather than an active, living congregation” (200). 

Although Roberson ends his history on a critical note, the book largely presents Dexter Avenue in a positive light, affirming what he sees as the crucial role of religious institutions and spirituality in the black cultural and political landscape.  He skillfully weaves thematic elements through his work and does a convincing job showing transformations in church life and congregational attitudes.  One does wonder at the teleological implications of these transformations; they all, of course, anticipate what will come in the 1950s.  Yet this can be seen as a broader historiographical trend to reperiodize the Civil Rights movement, allowing for its beginning to come much earlier than is traditionally accepted.  Also, Roberson balances what might have been an overemphasis on progress; he charts both the ebbs and flows of church life, membership, and the larger environment of black oppression during Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the social changes of postwar America.  The book will be of interest to students of African American history and religion, gender and religion (women parishioners played a crucial role at Dexter Avenue), and public historians interested in local history and the importance of place. 

Julia Brock, University of California, Santa Barbara


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