A tribute to Ebenezer Baptist Church: From Martin Luther King to Raphael Warnock

Getty Images

A measure of a civilized society is the institutions it builds to preserve and continue a legacy. For African Americans, one such monument is the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, founded 135 years ago by people recovering from slavery.

As we observe Martin Luther King Day, people at home and abroad cheer the arrival of political change in Georgia and in America — even as they condemn the violence that threatens our democratic institutions. In the midst of chaos, the Rev. Raphael Warnock’s triumphant campaign for the U.S. Senate has affirmed the promise of America. His platform of justice and moderation was a testament to the legacy of Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Warnock is the fifth minister of the church, having taken on the role in 2005. More importantly, he is the first to achieve the full measure of political redemption demanded in the long struggle for Black freedom. His election made real the dream of state empowerment championed by his most renowned predecessor, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

King was co-pastor of Ebenezer from 1960 until his assassination in 1968. Under his direction, Ebenezer forged a network of activist Black churches known as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The SCLC was a crusader for racial justice and the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 1965 Voting Rights Act, and 1968 Fair Housing Act.

King shared the ministry with his father, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. The beloved “Daddy” King led Ebenezer from 1931 until his death in 1975. He married Alberta Christine Williams, the daughter of the preceding pastor, “A.D” Williams. She gave birth to Martin Jr. and helped to guide the church in espousing a philosophy of economic self-reliance and spiritual relevance.

In turn, “Daddy” King’s vision of the role of Ebenezer was influenced by his father-in-law, the Rev. Adam Daniel Williams. In 1894, Williams assumed leadership of Ebenezer Baptist from John A. Parker, a former slave and church founder. From 1886 to 1894, Parker directed a fledgling congregation of 13 in spiritual fellowship and mutual support at Ebenezer. The word refers to an Old Testament story about a stone marker used by the Hebrew people to remind that God would protect them and guide them to victory. 

In 1894, Parker gave way to the younger pastor, “A.D.” Williams, the child of emancipated Africans in Georgia. He ministered at the church during the meanest era of the Jim Crow South. Yet he advocated for material progress as a foundational message in the teachings of the Black church. The programs that he espoused were the social gospels applied to the question of Black self-determination.  

Under Williams, the program advocated for a Christianity that affirmed race, political participation, business development, cooperative ventures, home ownership and education and skilled trades. He encouraged the Black community to “get a piece of the turf.”

This month, the enduring legacy of generations of pastoral lessons was upheld by the 6,000 members of Ebenezer Baptist with honor. Since 2001, the church building has undergone renovations to upgrade facilities and restore its appearance to the time of the civil rights movement. Ebenezer was deemed a historic landmark by the National Park Service.

Roger House, Ph.D., is an associate professor of American studies at Emerson College in Boston, and the author of “Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy.” Since 2014, he has published VictoryStride.com, a curated website on African American history and culture.

Tags Civil rights movement Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ebenezer Baptist Church Raphael Warnock Southern Christian Leadership Conference

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video