By Barnett Wright
The Birmingham Times
On a bright winter morning in the Magic City, a man is seen approaching the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI). He is walking with a purpose. Bishop Calvin Woods, pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in the Norwood community and recently retired president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) Birmingham Chapter, is headed south along Sixth Avenue North to the BCRI for an interview—but not just any interview.
Woods is scheduled to meet with Rock City Church Pastor Mike McClure Jr., who is also Woods’s grandson. McClure arrives at the BCRI not long after Woods. For the next 60 minutes McClure, 38, a man who has come to represent a new generation of pastors, interviews Woods, 88, who remains one of the city’s leading voices for equality and one of the few area pastors to have worked and traveled with Civil Rights icon the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In honor of Dr. King’s birthday (observed on January 17), The Birmingham Times asked McClure to talk with Woods about the SCLC—an organization that dates back to 1957, when it was formed by a group of Black pastors, including Civil Rights giants the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth and Dr. King, who served as its first president—as well as Woods’s memories of Dr. King and any other subject that came up between the grandfather and grandson.
Here are excerpts of that conversation, edited for length and clarity, which took place in a first-floor conference room at the BCRI. It began with a prayer by McClure.
PASTOR MIKE MCCLURE JR.: “Father God in Jesus’s name I thank you for this incredible moment in time that you’ve given us with this incredible giant of a man, I thank you for your sacrifice, His servanthood and I pray God that we can continue the legacy that he set before us. I thank you, God, out of every family you could have placed me in you place me in this one. God, I thank you for every example, every lesson, verbally and every lesson that I caught just watching, that you blessed us with God. I thank you right now for all that you’ve done, all that you’re doing, all you’re going to do. Bless this [Birmingham Times newspaper] God allow [Bishop Woods] to be a shining light not just in our city, but in this world, in this country. Continue to keep your hand on our lives, in Jesus’s name. Amen. Amen.”
PMJ: “I am excited to be interviewing one of my personal heroes, one of my homiletic heroes, one of my historic heroes, and unapologetically my grandfather, Bishop Calvin Woods. How are you doing today, sir?”
BISHOP CALVIN WOODS: “Oh, I’m doing fine, you’re more than just Mike. I didn’t expect you to be this much. When you were a little baby, a boy growing up, and [I remember] how y’all would get a good ride on my shoulder. God has used you in such a way now I’m riding on your shoulder. So many times, I consult, talk with you and the reason I do that is because I know God’s called you and anointed you. Otherwise, I wouldn’t consult with you about a lot of things . . . And I hope you never forget that you were my very first vice president of SCLC [Birmingham chapter]. God told me to do that and, of course, I thank God for what he did. But he expanded you and your work so much until your work got bigger than the SCLC.
“This is that way God did it. When I became president [SCLC Birmingham chapter] spirit had me reach out to you. So, I know you are a man of God. And of course, I think that helped me in making many decisions that I’ve made. See how God has been working through the years raising people up. He raised me up. And when there was a time when something holding me back, taking certain steps, but when God tell you something and propel you forward with it, he has something else he’s going to.”
PMJ: “So many times we’re focused on the work of the man. I know personally, you’ve spearheaded marches, you’ve been jailed fought against injustice for years, but to me, when it comes to purpose and pain the two aren’t mutually exclusive, a lot of people want the purpose, a lot of people don’t want the pain. So, the question I would like to ask is, looking back over your life, out of all the things you’ve accomplished that helped other people, what did it cost you?”
BCW: “It [gave] me an opportunity to learn more about God. He promised me when I was a young man that he would be with me always . . . And I heard that. I remember that. So as a result of me being obedient and going through the pain, I learned more about Him. He won’t forsake you. That doesn’t mean you won’t go through pain but just having that assurance of his Word that ‘I’m with you always’. So, I feel that what I was doing, I was doing it for God, and to the glory of God. It was rough. So, I’m not going to tell no lie and say I was never frightened sometimes. Yes. Sometimes I was frightened. But if I had an option from God to lead the people in a certain direction to do a certain thing I did it anyhow, because God said do it. That’s the only reason I could work in the cause because it is the work of God. And I feel my salvation is wrapped up in my obedience to God. It is an honor for God to choose you to do anything. He doesn’t have to choose you. You are unworthy. And the work that you have God makes you worthy to do. A lot of things I didn’t know, but I just trusted Him.”
PMJ: “What are your recollections of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. whether personal interaction or otherwise, what are some of your fondest memories of Dr. King?”
BCW: “His humanness. Dr. King’s humanness. He didn’t want us to forget that he was a human being. He was very humble, very humble. He and I got so close because I was bull headed. A lot of them thought it was hurting me. When we would get in meetings, I didn’t always agree with everybody on the outside. But he was paying attention to that. . . . They told him up at the City Hall don’t bring me back. Said ‘don’t bring that Calvin Woods.’ They tried to kick me off the negotiating committee [between prominent Black citizens and the city’s business leadership over desegregating Birmingham]. Jesse Lewis [founder of The Birmingham Times] a young man, said, ‘if Calvin Woods ain’t gonna be on it, it ain’t gonna be no damn meeting.”
Dr. King had respect for me standing up. . . we used to go all over town, out of town, across the country to meetings and when I go to the meetings, I go to the meeting to learn what I could get more like what I was doing. I remember meetings came up day and night . . . we’d demonstrate, go good churches . . .”
PMJ: “What do you think Dr. King would say about the world today?”
BCW: “Well, I think he’d be very disappointed, to a certain extent. Another extent, he would be proud because of where we are because of the courageous work that he did. I remember, when there was a time, we wouldn’t have been able to see Black reporters and news [anchors] all of them were white, that was just a tradition of the time. Dr. King would be proud to see what has taken place and transpired. We are at a point now, you [Pastor Mike Jr.] on your level, God put you there. You a pastor, you sing, you’re an administrator, everybody don’t have that many gifts. God give people gifts according to their ability [like] Dr. King’s work. . . .We’ve come a long ways in this city, long ways in this nation, but we still got a long way to go . . .but the thing about coming a long ways you have to be just as vigilant and tough to maintain what you have achieved because [there’s] always a spirit trying to figure out how to divide . . .that’s our biggest trouble. We’ve come a long way, but we got to keep on being vigilant – eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. You can’t think ‘you got it, we got it now’ and we stopped. You got to keep looking up to the hills from whence cometh your help. Dr. King was a spiritual leader, a Christian leader. He believed in prayer before we went out on anything. He’s a man [who] believed in love and non-violence. God is love. Some things you don’t ever get rid of. Some things is alright to let go. But don’t let God go, the principles and that’s why Dr. King’s organization has lasted as long as it has lasted.”
PMJ: “What did your role as the president of the Birmingham Chapter of the SCLC mean to you?”
BCW: “Well, I wasn’t trying to be the president or anything it was just the work of God. God anoints people with different things. You heard that song, ‘I wonder if the light from the lighthouse will shine on me’ God, God will put it on you. I wasn’t trying to get up there but everywhere I went they would call on me to do something A lot of people didn’t know, SCLC had a special paper. It was called the Southern Courier. I was over that in Birmingham. My job was to distribute information . . . What a lot of people don’t know, SCLC had a program back then called the Vision. That was the precursor, the forerunner for tutoring in the public school. We had a tutoring program I was over that on Saturday going in different churches. I had to get preachers . . . tutoring, lot of times SCLC had, it was God’s organization was working in it.”
PMJ: “How important is it for these historic organizations like the SCLC, the NAACP, the Urban League . . . to get the next generation of young people to join because we’re seeing now a lot of young people just aren’t joining the organizations that fought for them to get the liberties, they take advantage of?”
BCW: “We’ve got to continue to invest in young people and have their interest at heart. That’s very important . . . there’s a passage of scripture says ‘a child should lead them’ so you cannot leave young folk out. You’re going to do the work of God, but you have committed a terrible sin if you leave them by themselves. Young folk, you can’t fool them too easily. They can pick up on stuff and that’s the way God planned it cause there will be a time when they’re gonna be old folks. We’re not going anywhere if we leave our young folks behind. They’ll tell you what they mean, you don’t have to worry about that.”
PMJ: “Looking back over your life is there anything you haven’t accomplished that you wish you would have accomplished?”
BCW: “I’m working on it right now. In 1976 [thereabout] the Lord spoke to me about being a praying intercessor . . . I did what I could in that effort, intercede with people when they knew it when they didn’t, try to help groups of anybody . . . but I know what God told me an intercessory minister — that is standing in a gap for somebody else being, concerned about him. That is one thing that has been on my mind through my retirement of SCLC the Lord called me an intercessor I’ve got to do that. I’m not sitting down for my concern and work for the Lord.”
PMJ: “What do you think about the future of Birmingham?”
BCW: “Well I’m proud of the future of Birmingham because I know how Birmingham used to be and we’ve come a mighty long ways in the city of Birmingham, so I’m very proud. That doesn’t mean that I will stop crying out against injustice, the things that are not right. I’m not pleased with everything I see. I doubt the Lord is pleased about everything He sees about me. Birmingham is a place that I’m proud of. I’m very proud to be from Birmingham, Alabama, God chose this place . . . chose Birmingham Alabama. Some time you couldn’t sit down in places and eat couldn’t even go to good restaurant, good toilets. . . . Remember time we couldn’t drive no truck. They put you in jail if you go around driving a truck in certain places.”
PMJ: “What’s one message you would like to leave with the world?”
BCW: “Let’s keep on serving Jesus, looking to him. And that’s what we’ve got to do. We can’t let nothing get ahead of Him. He said, ‘I’m the Alpha and the Omega and the Beginning and the End and the First and the Last.’ We got to work hard, and we don’t let parties. . . People get more interested in parties and following individuals than they do in following Christ. We can’t force people to do everything we want, but some things we have to compel folk to do. The Lord told the disciples go out in the streets, and the lanes in get then to ‘come on into My house.’ And then you got to go out to the hedges and the highways, you got to do use all your abilities and influence to get people to get on the right road and turn to Christ. Many of these other things are good, but nothing above Christ that should be our number one priority when we are working for justice and it’s really what’s in a man’s heart, He can do a lot of things. You understand, but only what you do what you, but Christ will last, we are concerned about their physical well-being, but we’re also concerned about their spiritual well-being. So, if you are really concerned about their physical well-being that may be an indication you concerned about their spiritual well-being, concerned about the whole person and that comes back to an intercessor. And be concerned about trying to help others be great. Helping others to achieve.”
PMJ: When all is said and done . . . finish this sentence . . . Bishop Calvin Woods was. . .
BCW: “a servant of God, who loved God and loved people, anything else doesn’t matter.”
About Bishop Calvin Woods
Bishop Calvin Woods, 88, a hero of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, is pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in Norwood and a former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) Birmingham chapter.
Woods, the son of Abraham and Maggie Rosa Lee Wallace Woods, grew up in Birmingham and graduated from A.H. Parker High School in 1950. It was during his time at Parker that Woods developed his public speaking skills.
Woods is the younger brother of Abraham Woods Sr., another civil rights trailblazer. Together, the brothers, along with the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, established the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) in 1956. Through his work with the ACMHR and alongside other Black clergy like Shuttlesworth, Bishop Woods also participated in numerous other efforts to support the cause of Civil Rights in Birmingham.
Woods was arrested later in 1956 for pushing for boycotts of the Birmingham buses, which were segregated at the time. After the arrest, Woods was fined and sentenced to prison for six months. Years later, after continual involvement with the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham, he was again arrested, and this time, beaten for participating in a protest, in 1963.
Woods also joined the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, and in 1965, protested how Birmingham handled voter registration. In 1966, Woods also served as the strategy chairman for a protest against the killing of Black protesters at a supermarket in the city.
Woods was pastor of East End Baptist Church in Southside from 1960 to 1974, before he moved to Shiloh Baptist Church. Woods became president of the SCLC Birmingham chapter in 2006 after his brother Abraham Jr. stepped down. In December, 2021 Bishop Woods stepped down as president of the same chapter.
About Pastor Mike McClure Jr.
Michael McClure Jr., 38, also known as Pastor Mike Jr. or PMJ, is the senior pastor and founder of Rock City Church in Forestdale. In addition to his leadership for Rock City, McClure is also a hitmaking and award-winning gospel singer.
McClure, who is the son of Irondale’s Revelation Church Ministries pastor Michael McClure Sr. and Angela Woods McClure, graduated from Minor High School in Adamsville. McClure is also the grandson of civil rights leader Bishop Calvin Woods.
After spending two years as a “movement pastor” at Revelation, his father’s church, McClure started The Rock Church as a student ministry at Miles College in 2009. In March of 2010, the church bought the former West Birmingham Christian School in Forestdale for $500,000. While Rock City Church still uses the building as one of its campuses, the church also now has locations in Birmingham’s Central Park neighborhood and Tuscaloosa.
Rock City Church also owns and operates the former Central Park Christian School as Rock City Preparatory Christian School. It is the only Black-owned, accredited Christian school in Alabama.
Rock City Church has done a variety of initiatives to help Birmingham-area residents. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the church organized a grocery delivery service which served Birmingham, Tuscaloosa and both of their surrounding areas. The church also offered financial assistance to people suffering financial losses from the pandemic, and partnered with the city of Birmingham, the church gave away thousands of masks.
In January 2019, McClure put out his first musical singer as a gospel singer. The song, “BIG,” which served as the first single from his then-upcoming album “Live Free,” stayed at the top of the Billboard gospel airplay chart for 10 weeks and hit number seven on Billboard’s gospel digital sales chart. “Live Free” also went on to hit number one on Billboard’s gospel album chart.
At the 2020 Stellar Gospel Music Awards, McClure was named “Best New Artist” and also received the “Rap/Hip Hop/Gospel Album of the Year” award for “Live Free.” From the success of his album, McClure also gave away some profits to pay for others’ medical debt through RIP Medical Debt, a charity based in Rye, New York.