Cecil B. Flournoy's Memories of St. Paul UMC During the Civil Rights Era

Post date: Mar 10, 2017 6:48:12 PM

by Cecil B. Flournoy, Sr.

Our family’s arrival in Birmingham at St. Paul Methodist church was both memorable and life changing. We moved to Birmingham in 1962. The church was beautiful and the parsonage was attached to the church. Because the parsonage was attached to church, the church offered a wonderful place to explore for me. As I explored the neighborhood, there was a boarding house between St. Paul and 16th Street Baptist church and houses across the street. There was a small grocery store on the corner across the street from St Paul owned by a Puerto Rican man where we could go and get candy. Pools funeral home was around the corner and the park was up the street. Behind the church, in a pink building, was Dr. Samuel’s office. New church, new friends, a new school, I really liked it here.

Dad , Rev. Otis R. Flournoy, was working hard with the church and a newspaper article was written about the new pastor at St. Paul. He began broadcasting on the radio – station WENN. The church was growing and things were going very well. I was so proud of my Dad. I remember Dad meeting with small groups of people at St. Paul and then I remember the big meeting. Dad told me to stay in the parsonage, but after he left, I heard all the noise. I heard singing, speaking, and clapping. I wanted to know what was going on. I slipped into the church and the church was packed. I had never seen so many people in St. Paul before. People were even standing around the walls. As the meeting was ending, they were preparing to march up to the park. Dad spotted me and took me back to the parsonage. As the people were leaving, some people drifted into the parsonage since there was just a door that separated the church from the parsonage. Dad remained behind to keep people from coming into the parsonage. Mom was there with the children, the youngest being Judith who was about 2 ½ years old. Mom, always trying to give us a sense of the historical significance of everything, told us this was the first Civil Rights meeting held in Birmingham.

After that meeting, things began to change. There was bigger presence of police officers and dogs. The neighborhood no longer was this great place to explore. Mom made us stay in more. I could only play along the side of the parsonage or in front. I had to remain in sight. I remember one day my Dad came home and he really seemed upset. I found out he had been shot at in the car and the back window of our car had been shot out. He had the window repaired but soon after that, Mom and Dad went to the post office and came back visibly shaken. They had been shot at again. The back window was out again. Dad said that the man was on the street with the shot gun. There was a policeman standing by. My Dad said that he went up to the policeman and pointed out the gunman but was told by the policeman that he had better get back in the car and move on before he shoots again.

The riots and the sound of gun fire was a normal sound at night outside of the parsonage. But one night, my Dad came in and said “We cannot stay here tonight”. We quickly got dressed and prepared to leave. As we came to the door, I noticed the police on one side where the boarding house was, Black people were in front of St Paul and we were in the middle. The Black people were throwing bricks, rocks and sticks and the police were shooting their guns. Dad ran back and forth between the parsonage and the car shielding my sisters from the crossfire until they had been put in the car. When he came back for my Mom, he asked that I run with them. Seeing the crossfire that he was running through, I took a few steps towards the car but retreated. Mom and Dad made it to the car. My family began screaming for me to come on but I was scared. Finally, I ran as fast as I could toward the car, my eye on the policemen with the guns. I heard a shot just as I got to the car. That night we had to leave. As we drove off, Black people ran towards the car with bricks. My Dad made sure that they saw that it was him. As we left, I noticed the store on the corner was on fire. That weekend Birmingham was shut down. When we were able to return to the parsonage, I checked the tree by the rock where I had leaped towards the car and found a bullet in the tree. This was a night I have never forgotten.

Summer came and the dogs and fire hoses seemed to be almost a daily occurrence. “Bull” Connors would ride through the streets in his white tank sounding off on his bull horn asking people to return to their homes. The gutters of the streets were filled with water from the hoses. You could see people being knocked over, clothes being practically ripped off their backs from the power of the hoses. But the streets stayed full of people. I remember standing on the streets and playing in the water one day observing this regular occurrence and Mom wanted me to come in. It was time again for another historical moment. Mom wanted us to see that Governor George Wallace was standing in the door of the University of Alabama. I wanted to stay out doors but Mom said this had more significance. It was time for a history lesson again. She told us about our cousin Autherine Lucy who was the first Black student to attend the University of Alabama in the 50’s but had to withdraw for her own safety.

Even with all the things going on, St Paul continued to thrive and remained a focal point of the movement. Church life was good. We had fund raising events like the “Everybody’s Birthday Party”. The Sunday School was in competition to see which class had the highest attendance. We had a type of car race. Each class had a cardboard car on a string and the class with the highest attendance had their car advanced and every Sunday, when the report was read, it was exciting to see whose car would be advanced. (I was hoping our class would beat Mrs. Durr’s class). One Sunday, as we sat in the assembly, and the attendance and finance report had just been read, an explosion took place that physically shook us. Immediately, the men of the church ran out to see what was going on. I think it was Mr. Ephraim who ran back inside and told us that 16th Street Baptist church had been bombed and we needed to evacuate St. Paul. There was fear that there might be a bomb in St. Paul as well. As we rushed out of the church, we were met and stopped by State Troopers or police. They had surrounded the block. I remember wondering, how did they get here so fast? They said that no one could leave. I was standing with Mrs. Nunally and Sammie and she asked if the children could at least be allowed to leave and be taken home. As parents began gathering the children, I thought, “This is my home – I can’t go anywhere”. As Mrs. Nunally and Sammie were leaving, I ran and jumped in the car with them.

Frequently some of my siblings and I stayed with Mrs. Childs, other church members and friends. One of my favorite places to stay was with Rev. A.D. King, the brother of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His son, Derek, was in my class at Brunetta C. Hill Elementary School and one of my best friends - Condoleeza Rice was also in that class. However, when the King’s home was bombed, that was no longer an option.

After these events, I would hear people say that Rev. Flournoy is going to get St. Paul bombed. They wanted him gone. We were transferred to Goodsell Methodist Church in West Point, Georgia. We continued to live in Birmingham though.

As people began to talk about the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham, St. Paul was no longer mentioned. The early meetings and events faded and were soon forgotten. 16th Street Baptist Church became the focus of the movement. I would often wonder, “What if it had been St. Paul that had been bombed? Maybe then St Paul would have its’ rightful place in history”. But then I think, “Thank God that it was not us”. Talking with my Dad, he felt maybe if he had marched after that first meeting, he and St. Paul would have kept their significance. But his responsibility and the safety of his family was more important. I sometimes thought, “What if I had obeyed and not gone into the meeting?” Maybe Dad would have marched and he and St Paul would have been remembered. Before my Dad passed, I asked him if it bothered him that many of his contributions or accomplishments were not recognized. He told me that early on it did bother him, but he wanted me to remember something. “If you are doing things to be recognized by men, you will always be disappointed. You do good things, the right things not for recognition but you do them because it is the right thing to do.”