Thirty-five years after a young Martin Luther King Jr. stepped up to the pulpit at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, aging members of his congregation carry on the activist spirit he fostered.
The red-brick building situated a block from the Alabama Capitol looks much as it did the day he arrived. The worn, dark pews are the same ones members sat in to hear King's sermons. Only cushions have been added.The Rev. Murray Branch, the current pastor, said physical appearances are not the only things that remain unchanged at the church, now known as the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church and recognized in 1974 as a national historic landmark.
King, who would have turned 60 Sunday, came to Dexter Avenue in the fall of 1954 at age 25. On Dec. 2, 1955, blacks went to his church to organize the Montgomery bus boycott, often regarded as a starting point for the civil rights movement.
Branch said that kind of activist spirit - which dates back to the church's founding in 1877 - still exists in the congregation. The church is a meeting place for social activists, and its work extends into Africa, where the congregation supports missionary work.
King "would be pleased to some extent because we have increased substantially in our benevolent work," Branch said in an interview last week. He said "a constant stream" of people comes to the church in need of help.
"Hardly a week passes that we do not get appeals, and many are white," said Branch, who taught at Morehouse College in Atlanta while King was a student.
But Zelia Evans, who remembers King's first sermons, said he would not be satisfied. "He would think we were not doing enough," she said.
On Monday, the national holiday marking King's birthday, a noon service featuring speakers and singing is expected to attract scores of visitors. On Sunday, congregants will remember their former pastor with a quieter service.
Branch said Dexter Avenue Baptist had about 460 members in King's day, but that number has dwindled to about 250.
Robert Nesbitt, a member of the church committee looking for a new pastor, had heard about King from a friend while in Atlanta. King had planned to go to Chattanooga, Tenn., to preach, but Nesbitt persuaded him to come to Dexter Avenue, Evans said.
"He was young and energetic. In fact, one of the members said, `Why did Mr. Nesbitt bring us that boy to preach here?' But we found out he was much more than a boy," she said.
Members knew they had a good preacher in King, "but we didn't know how special he was," Evans said.