Fifty Years Ago | April 1968
short stories of events and times during the formation of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast collected by the Rev. S. Albert Kennington, Diocesan Registrar-Historiographer
On Thursday, April 4, 1968, Bishop Hamilton West and the Executive Council of the Diocese of Florida heard a report from its special diocesan committee on the possibility of a new diocese – of the work that had been done, the work being done, and the next meeting scheduled in May.
Just after six o’clock that same evening, as he stood on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was struck in the neck by a sniper’s bullet. He died an hour later in a Memphis hospital. He was 39.
As founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Dr. King was the preeminent leader in the non-violent civil rights movement in the United States. He was pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery in the mid-1950s when Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white passenger. He had been in Birmingham during the 1963 civil rights demonstrations which culminated in the bombing of the 16th Avenue Baptist Church and the death of four young African American girls. Five months before this, Bishop Charles C. J. Carpenter and Bishop Coadjutor George M. Murray were among the eight recipients named in Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
Dr. King had been in Selma in 1965 for the march to Montgomery in support of voting rights. In a late summer follow-up to enlisting voters, Episcopal seminarian Jonathan Myrick Daniels was martyred in Hayneville on August 14.
Through these years, both Bishop Carpenter and Bishop Murray worked to facilitate the progress of the civil rights movement. Bishop Carpenter helped in a major way by making his diocesan office in Birmingham, Carpenter House, available as a safe place for leaders of both the black and white communities to meet to work together for good – no small offering in those violent-prone years. Bishop Carpenter’s trust was earned because of the pastoral care he gave to his diocese and for his courageous stand against the Ku Klux Klan since the late 1940s.
In the heated years of the 1950s and 1960s, both bishops were vilified by some Alabamians for being too liberal, and by others in Alabama and throughout the Episcopal Church and beyond for being racists.
For his part, Bishop Murray, with the support of Bishop Carpenter, worked with leaders of both races in Birmingham and throughout the state. Birmingham United and Mobile United both emerged from his early work along with citizens of both races. Both bishops faced numerous threats to their personal safety and to the safety of their families.
Throughout the nation, protest rioting broke out in at least 100 cities.
Seven days later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act prohibiting discrimination when renting, buying, or financing because of race, color, or national origin.