Through a Lens: Black History Month | Presbyterian Historical Society

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Through a Lens: Black History Month

February 9, 2024

In 2023, PHS was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to digitize 22,500 photographs and supporting documents from the Religious News Service Photograph Collection. Learn more about the project.

As we further familiarize ourselves with the contents of our Religious News Service Photograph Collection, we have discovered some powerful photos—and many that speak to the African American experience. These images, these moments captured by a lens, allow us to time travel, revisiting the tumultuous and varied history of the mid-twentieth century, as the collection spans the years 1945 to 1982.

This month, in celebration of Black History Month, we want to share some of the images that captured our attention and pulled at our heartstrings. We encourage you to browsed digitized RNS images and our African American History Digital Collection in Pearl Digital Collections.

FLORIDA MIGRANT WORK LEADER, 1965. [islandora:151416]

For fifteen years, the Reverend Isaac A. Henderson led a migrant ministry program at the South Dade Labor Camp in Princeton, Florida. On the first of June, 1965, the Rev. Henderson retired from his position with the National Council of Churches, packing up his things and joining his wife in New York, where she worked with church youth.

Migrant ministry and labor camps are inextricably linked. It was typical for the farmhands and laborers to be housed in rundown shacks with few accommodations. With around 200,000 workers moving their families to the Sunshine State for seasonal work in 2024, migrant ministries—like Beth-El Farmworkers Ministry in Wimauma, FL—are needed to offer support to farmworkers through education and hunger relief. Check out this incredibly informative online photo exhibit about migrant labor during the Great Depression, created by Florida’s State Library and Archives, for further reading on the topic.

BLACK EXPO, 1971. [islandora:150034].

At the 1971 International Black Expo, held in New York by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Rev. Robert Owens proudly displays his organization’s first long-playing record, Happy Today by the Echoes of Harmony. Owens, a Baptist pastor from Brooklyn, heads the Gospel Chords Program, through which this vinyl record was created. You can listen to the titular song here on YouTube.

Perhaps Owens was familiar with another Brooklyn pastor, Rev. William A Jones Jr., who served as the head of the expo. The expo was made possible by Operation Breadbasket. Often seen as the economic arm of the SCLC, Operation Breadbasket launched in February 1962 with the aim of improving the economic conditions of Black communities across the U.S., primarily through the support of Black-owned businesses. Thus, over one hundred organizations, businesses, and corporations could be found at the International Black Expo in early November 1971. The three-day expo also featured a variety of seminars, on topics like politics, health, and the Black family.

The New York Times article published on November 5, the day after the opening of the expo, tells us that the SCLC held a National Black Expo in Chicago, Illinois, two months prior.

DR. KING ARRESTED, 1965. [islandora: 343596].

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is seen here to the left, kneeling to pray with a line of others at a voter drive in Selma, Alabama, in early February 1965. The group, in its entirety, is being taken to jail. Two hundred and sixty-five persons were arrested that day on charges of “parading without a permit” for walking to the Dallas County Courthouse in protest of discriminatory voter registration practices. Add another five hundred people to the mix—students who skipped school in order to join the demonstration, and who were arrested on truancy charges—and the number grows to over seven hundred.

The majority of those arrested in Selma that day were released without bail, pending arraignment. Dr. King, however, chose to stay behind.

The demonstrators’ enthusiasm and persistence would not be for nothing. On August 4, the U.S. Senate would pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the long-delayed issue of voting rights having been propelled to the forefront of the political realm because of the various drives and protests that had been launched in Selma. On March 7, a month after the voter registration drive pictured above, a similarly large group of demonstrators attempted to march from Selma to the Alabama state capital of Montgomery. This march is now referred to as “Bloody Sunday”—the group was stopped and violated by police using tear gas, night sticks, and whips. Media coverage of the violent events of “Bloody Sunday” led to public outrage—and inspiration. On March 25, that same month, a group of around 25,000 people, led by Dr. King himself, successfully completed the journey from Selma to the capital.


Just before eleven a.m. on September 15, 1963, a bomb exploded beneath the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. What sets this story of tragedy apart in the minds of many were the four lives lost that day—the lives of four little girls. 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and 11-year-old Cynthia Wesley had been in the basement of the church building. None of them survived the attack.

The above photograph, so emotive and moving, was taken at the gravesite of Carole Robertson, one of the young girls who died in the explosion. Mr. and Mrs. Alvin Robertson are seen in the middle of the frame, surrounded by friends, relatives, and fellow congregants of 16th Street. Their pain is evident.

The bombing of the Birmingham church was not the first instance of racially motivated violence in the city, especially not in response to the wave of desegregation that had recently taken place. Months before, in early May, a bomb destroyed the Gaston Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. had been staying. Arther Shores, an NAACP attorney, watched his home erupt in flames when it was firebombed on August 20th, and again on September 4th, in retaliation for his attempts to help integrate the city’s public schools. Birmingham was no stranger to such violence.

However, the innocence of the young lives that had been taken on the morning of September 15 changed something—their deaths incited national outrage and an outpouring of enthusiasm regarding desegregation and the violent struggle for civil rights, in Alabama and beyond. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sent a telegram to the state governor, George Wallace—known to be a staunch segregationist—in which he said, “The blood of our little children is on your hands.”

Over, 8,000 people attended the girls' funeral service at Reverend John Porter's Sixth Avenue Baptist Church. The following year, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. Many other churches, however, would be burned; many other families rocked with loss. Steps were being taken, and the fight for civil rights continued into the following years.

REBUILT CHURCH DEDICATED, 1965. [islandora:151627].

1963 was a year of tumult, a year of loss, for many. The following year passed in much the same way. Over the course of the summer months of 1964, twenty Black churches were lit aflame and burned to the ground in Mississippi, the result of the fervent rise of the Ku Klux Klan. In that state specifically, the KKK was growing at a steady rate, with membership reaching more than 10,000. The Klan, across the nation, was prepared to use violence to fight the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century—and violence they brought.

But this image is one of celebration, as churchgoers and community members of Jackson, Mississippi, gather at the newly rebuilt Zion Hill Baptist Church in Summit. The building, rebuilt at a cost of $15,450, had been one of the many churches that had burned to the ground the previous summer. The Committee of Concern, an interreligious, interracial group, aimed to reconstruct the various buildings that had been decimated during the period of high racial tensions. At the time of the unveiling of the new Zion Hill church building, the group had managed to collect $92,000 from throughout the country toward their efforts. This money had gone toward the reconstruction of 12 churches in total—nine of which had been dedicated by the time this photo was captured, eight of which were in various phases of rebuilding.

The burning of Black churches and homes of worship has, unfortunately, not been a rarity throughout U.S. history. Three decades later, and over the course of a seven-year period starting in 1990, white supremacists would destroy over 200 Black churches across the nation.

The Burned Churches Project was created in response to this epidemic of hate-motivated arsons. The Project, established by the National Council of Churches, provided grants to churches to help them rebuild and fought to expose the racism that motivated these attacks. You can read more about the Burned Churches Project in our Fall 2021 edition of Presbyterian Heritage.

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Want more Black History Month content? Read through our blogs tagged with African American History here.