As our Civil Rights history tour leaves Birmingham and heads to Memphis today, I recalled the story of Birmingham’s Bible Reading Crusade of 1946. I wrote about this crusade in The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society. Here is the pertinent passage:
As the ABS experimented with different ways to bring the Bible to the world and raise the necessary funds to do so, they continued more traditional means of extending the Bible Cause at home. In several American cities, the Society held “Bible Reading Crusades.” The largest and most influential of these crusades was conducted in 1946 by the Atlanta Division of the Agency Among the Colored People of the United States (at this point it was called The Haven Agency). The crusade was focused on the African American coal miners and plant workers of Birmingham, Alabama. Daniel Stanton, the senior secretary of the Haven Agency, inspired the crusade. He wanted to meet the spiritual needs of the more than 100,000 African Americans living in the city. Stanton had spent most of his time in Birmingham gathering informally with these laborers, mostly on weekend afternoons on 4th Avenue North between 16th and 18th streets, to share the Gospel and teach them the Bible. “These milling throngs,” he wrote, “were ‘making a living’; but the pace of the wheels of industry gave them little time to think about ‘making a life’.”
African American businessmen in the city drafted A.C. Gaston to lead the crusade and serve as its primary organizer. Gaston was the grandson of a former slave, a World War I veteran, a layman in African Methodist Episcopal Church, and a Birmingham businessman who made his money in insurance, banking, and the funeral services industry. He was the wealthiest African American in Birmingham and was known city-wide for providing jobs for out-of-work blacks. He also built the A.G. Gaston Hotel in 1954, an important civil rights landmark where Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and other Civil Rights Movement leaders stayed free of charge. As racial tensions broke out in Birmingham in the 1950s and 1960s, Gaston became an advocate of working peacefully with the city’s white businessmen, even at times disagreeing with the approach of King. It is not too much of a stretch to say that the significant role that Gaston played in Birmingham’s civil rights movement had roots in his leadership of the city’s Bible crusade in 1946. Gaston was well known, but this was one of his first efforts to organize a citywide event of this scale.
One of Gaston’s first moves was to get the support of Birmingham’s Negro Business League and African American ministers. He then set a goal of getting 50,000 people, roughly half of the African American population, to read the Bible together on May 12, 1946, the first day of the weeklong crusade. The black community of Birmingham responded in a way that far exceeded expectations. Stanton arranged for 40,000 copies of the Gospel of John to be distributed before the crusade so the city would be ready for the mass meeting. The success of the first day reading prompted Gaston’s committee to change its distribution goal to 75,000. Gaston purchased 15,000 more copies of the Gospel of John from Stanton and created a subcommittee to provide one for every high school in the city. Local businessmen turned their stores and officers into what the ABS described as “centers for stimulating an interest in the reading of the Book.” Volunteer workers distributed Bibles in every industrial plant in Birmingham that employed African Americans. Others brought scripture portions into the “dark mines and into the lives made darker still by sin.” In the end, over 101,800 copies were distributed in the city during the week. The ABS ugranted 62,000 of those Bibles, its largest donation to an organization or denomination in the two decades following the end of World War II.
Last night I asked Carolyn Maull McKinstry if she remembered this Bible reading crusade. She did not, but she also wasn’t born yet. When I wrote The Bible Cause I did not explore this event from the perspective of local records or from the Birmingham African Americans involved. But this civil rights bus tour has challenged me to think about this story in new ways. I wonder if there might be some connections between the Bible Reading Crusade and the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham.
Perhaps I will return to this story one day.