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  • Clayborn Temple

    A few days after he was arrested for participating in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience, Rev. Benjamin Booker got a letter from a member of his congregation.

    She told him that a minister of the gospel had no business getting involved in demonstrations surrounding the 1968 sanitation workers strike in Memphis.

    More than four decades later, the retired African Methodist Episcopal pastor still remembers what he told the woman.

    “That is a minister’s job — to work for justice,” Booker said in his Hickory Hill home. “What did she think Jesus did? What did she think the gospel is all about?”…

    “Dr. King’s dream was also God’s dream,” said Booker, a fourth-generation AME leader who remembers King saying: “If one is truly devoted to the religion of Jesus, he will seek to rid the Earth of social evils.”

    Booker, who was among clergy who worked to rid Memphis of the social evil of segregation in the 1960s, was pastor of historic Clayborn Temple AME Church.

    Clayborn Temple now stands, precariously, as another sort of memorial to the civil rights era.

    The Downtown church served as the strategy center and refuge for striking sanitation workers and their supporters, including King and other clergy.

    King spoke nearby at Mason Temple, but he and others did much of their work at Clayborn Temple. The “I AM A MAN” posters that became an iconic symbol of the 1968 strike were made in the church’s print shop…

    The church was heavily damaged during the strike by police tear gas attacks after one march turned violent. Booker himself was maced during the attack.

    In following years, abuse by vandals, neglect by the church, middle-class flight and urban renewal took a larger toll on Clayborn Temple.

    Now the 120-year-old building sits boarded up, abandoned and for sale.

    “Everyone knows about the beautiful stained glass, it’s still there, but I remember how beautiful the floors were,” said Rev. Irene Booker, an AME minister and Benjamin Booker’s daughter-in-law.

    “We were used to old wood floors, but Clayborn had this pretty and shiny black-and-white tile. When we were kids, we used to sit under that big chandelier and watch the choir descend down that long, winding staircase singing ‘It is Well with My Soul.’”…

    “Clayborn Temple was the place where we took the gospel into the streets.”

    - David Waters on faithinmemphis.com 8/27/11