Bernice King is the youngest child of civil rights leader Martin Luther King; she is also the only one of King’s children to be ordained as a minister. King holds degrees in law and in divinity from Emory University. She has been an active advocate for civil rights around the world, speaking out against the apartheid regime in South Africa during the 1980s. In the United States, she has been honored for her work advocating for the rights of women and minotiries. She is the executive director of the King Center, an Atlanta-based organization which is “dedicated to educating a global network of allied individuals and organizations working collectively using the philosophy and methods of nonviolence to create the Beloved Community that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned.”
King was formerly an elder at Newbirth Missionary Baptist church, but stepped down after Bishop Eddie Long was accused of sexual misconduct. King said at the time that she was leaving in order to create her own ministry. She belongs to the First Congregational Church in Atlanta, whose roots go back to the 19th century. Here’s what you need to know about Bernice King’s church:
1. The First Congregational Church Is the Second Oldest Black Congregational Church in the US
The First Congregational Church, a United Church of Christ church, was founded by freed slaves after the end of the Civil War. The church stands in downtown Atlanta at the corner of Courtland Street and John Wesley Dobbs Avenue. The church grew out of the Storrs School in Atlanta, which was established after the Civil War by the American Missionary Association to provide social services, educational classes, and worship for the newly freed. On May 22, 1867 a committee affiliated with the school voted to organize a Congregational Church, which eventually grew into the First Congregational Church.
The church began as a “little red church” but eventually grew. In 1894, the church appointed its first African American pastor, Dr. Henry Hugh Proctor, who was a graduate of Fisk University and Yale Divinity School. In 1908, under Proctor’s leadership, the church building which still stands was completed.
2. The Church Has a History of Providing Social Services to Atlanta Residents of All Backgrounds
The First Congregational Church provided the first gymnasium available to Atlanta blacks. They also established a group home for young black single women, the first of its kind in Atlanta. The church also operated a medical clinic, and a prison mission to assist people in jails. First Congregational Church also ran a daycare center, classes for the blind, and domestic education classes.
The church was also known for its music festival, and offered the first public water fountain in Atlanta. Today, the church runs programs to feed the needy and to work on health issues.
3. Kamala Harris Was Invited to Speak at the Church & the Minister Called Her a ‘Committed Social Justice Soldier’
In 2017, Senator Kamala Harris was invited to speak at the church’s 150th anniversary celebration. Reverend Dwight Andrews told Rolling Out magazine that the church had invited the California senator to speak because they admired her forceful questioning of then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Adnrews said,
“I was watching the Senate hearing involving the questioning of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and I was so taken by Sen. Harris’ clarity of questions and statements, I said, ‘Who is this woman?; As I looked into more of her background, I thought she would be a great choice because she is one of our leaders on the national scene and I think she is a very committed social justice soldier. Social justice is a part of what this church is about. The Black church has a legacy of having important speakers as part of its national pulpit for over a 150 years. Booker T. Washington gave the groundbreaking speech when this church was built, so we try to bring the voices of important leaders of our time and we will continue to try to do that.”
4. The Church Holds a Regular Jazz Service
On the third Sunday of every month, First Congregational holds a jazz-themed service. Reverend Andrews said the church uses jazz because, in his words, “jazz is one of the great expressions of African American culture. It has a very string palpable spiritual message if you listen to it. Jazz is part of the cultural and spiritual hub of our community. Jazz has a way of stating something powerful and spiritual as seen by past great musicians and we are just lifting this genre as well as others in our service.”
5. The Church Is Known for Its Classic Architecture & a Stained Glass Window Depicting Abraham Lincoln
The First Congregational Church is known for its beauty; its style incorporates elements of Italian Renaissance and Spanish Mission architecture. The church has a stained glass dome skylight and a rose window. It also has a series of stained glass windows, including one which depicts the “great emancipator,” Abraham Lincoln.