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Meet the Rev. Joseph Ellwanger, the White Pastor Who Stood With Civil Rights Leaders in 1963

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The Rev. Joseph Ellwanger at a protest rally in 2011. Sixty years after the 1963 civil rights campaign in Birmingham, Ellwanger is still fighting for equality and justice. (Susan Ruggles, Milwaukee)
By Michael Sznajderman
Alabama News Center

This story is part of a series of articles, “Bending Toward Justice,” focusing on the 60th anniversary of events that took place in Birmingham during 1963 that changed the face of the city, and the world, in the ongoing struggle for equality and human rights. The series name is a reference to a quote by Martin Luther King Jr.: “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” The series will continue through 2023.

The Rev. Joseph Ellwanger stands out among the civil rights figures who helped to change the world in Birmingham in 1963.

It has to do with his skin color; Ellwanger is white.

In a city many viewed as the most segregated in the nation 60 years ago, Ellwanger was virtually alone as a white minister leading a Black congregation: St. Paul Lutheran Church in the Titusville neighborhood.

He was the only local white pastor who attended the mass meetings leading up to the climactic street battles that shocked the nation and ultimately toppled segregation in the city.

And he was the only white person asked to join the core committee that gathered regularly at the Black-owned A.G. Gaston Motel to discuss strategy for the Birmingham campaign. Among the committee members were the Revs. Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth and Ralph Abernathy and other key figures connected to King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

In an interview with Alabama News Center, Ellwanger spoke fondly and eloquently about his life in Birmingham. He led St. Paul’s for almost a decade, from 1958 to 1967, through the city’s most turbulent years of segregation, political transformation and eventual evolution toward an integrated community.

But Ellwanger didn’t mince words about the dark days in Birmingham prior to the 1963 campaign that ultimately broke the back of official segregation in the city and led to the passage by Congress of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Ellwanger was 25 years old and just out of seminary when he accepted the pastor’s post at St. Paul’s. Born in St. Louis, Ellwanger was raised in Selma, where his father was the supervising pastor over a group of Black Lutheran churches in the region. Later, the elder Ellwanger was interim pastor at St. Paul’s before handing over leadership of the church to his son.

It was a time when members of the Ku Klux Klan and other fervent segregationists in Birmingham were waging war against even modest attempts to promote integration – a fight that included the bombing of Black homes – including Shuttlesworth’s. It was a period of racial terror directed toward anyone who dared question the city’s system of segregated businesses, schools and neighborhoods. It earned the city an unsavory nickname: Bombingham.

“It was definitely a polarized city – Black on one hand, white on the other. Most of the time, I didn’t feel it,” said Ellwanger, who celebrates his 90th birthday on Feb. 22. At the time, he lived in the predominantly Black Titusville community and was focused on pastoring his congregants. “It was when we encountered, and tried to engage with, the white community that we felt the division and polarization,” Ellwanger said.

Ellwanger became involved in the Greater Birmingham Council on Human Relations, a group of progressive whites and Blacks who were interested in cautiously finding ways to peaceably break down racial barriers in the city.

Ellwanger recalled how Birmingham police officers (many of whom were Klan members) would write down the license plates of everyone attending the council meetings, especially white attendees, as a form of intimidation. “It was a clear reminder of the polarization, and the threats and fear of any questioning of the status quo,” he said.

Ellwanger received a more direct threat in 1961, when the youth group at St. Paul’s was invited to visit with the youth group at the all-white Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Tuscaloosa for a Sunday evening of “sharing.” It was an extraordinary invitation, offered by a student pastor at the Tuscaloosa church.

Ellwanger accompanied two girls from St. Paul’s to Tuscaloosa for the event, with the approval of the girls’ parents. They were greeted warmly at the Tuscaloosa church, where the integrated group shared stories, prayers and a meal. “I got home and I was on a real high,” said Ellwanger.

Two days later, Ellwanger opened the Birmingham Post-Herald to a shocking headline. After the prior Sunday’s gathering, the newspaper reported, the student pastor at Holy Cross was abducted and beaten by the Klan and a cross burned in the churchyard.

“I was literally reading the paper when the phone rang and a rough voice said, ‘You and the two girls are next,’” Ellwanger said. What followed, Ellwanger said, changed his life.

While nothing came of the threat, Ellwanger knew he had to warn the two girls and their parents. He asked one of the girls, who was 15, whether she was afraid. Ellwanger will never forget her response: “She said, ‘No. I’m more ashamed; I’m ashamed that others are doing so much for the freedom of my people, and for all people, and I am doing so little.’”

“It was beautiful,” Ellwanger said. “It was a symbolic sign of the spirit of young people.” He said the exchange opened his eyes to the power of youth to change the world.

Ellwanger didn’t know it then, but it was also a harbinger of what would take place in Birmingham two years hence.

The struggle for justice

In February 1963, Ellwanger received an invitation, sent to all Black church leaders in the Birmingham area, to attend a meeting to discuss the possibility of a coordinated campaign of public demonstrations to force changes in the city’s segregation laws. Ellwanger recalls that about 50 Black pastors went to the meeting; he was the only white pastor.

During that meeting, King and Shuttlesworth laid out what Ellwanger considered a modest list of goals for the potential demonstrations. It included hiring Black clerks in the city’s five largest downtown department stores, and hiring Black police officers and firemen to serve in Black neighborhoods (there was not a single Black policeman or fireman in the city, although other cities in the state had begun to integrate). The goals didn’t mention integrating Birmingham schools, a notion that had already led to protests by white students and their parents. Indeed, nearly 10 years after the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that “separate but equal” schools were unconstitutional, virtually no movement had taken place to integrate schools in Alabama.

King and Shuttlesworth emphasized at the meeting their strategy of nonviolent resistance, in hopes of gaining support from Black church leaders, Ellwanger said. “That’s when I came to believe in the authenticity of Dr. King and Rev. Shuttlesworth,” he said.

“It just deepened my trust in Dr. King,” who Ellwanger had met twice before – “that he was committed to the good of the Black community, and the white community as well.

“He struggled for justice,” Ellwanger said of King, who five years later would be gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee. “He genuinely wanted the United States to ‘live out the true meaning of its creed … that all men are created equal,’” Ellwanger said, quoting from King’s famed “I Have a Dream” speech.

A few weeks after the gathering of pastors, Ellwanger attended one of the early “mass meetings” at 16th Street Baptist Church, where King, Shuttlesworth, Abernathy, Andrew Young and other leaders prepared and inspired protesters for the street marches.

“I went on my own,” said Ellwanger, who was the only white person among the hundreds of Blacks attending the meeting. That is, except for what he described as two white “plants” – city detectives –  there to gather information and report back to racist Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor.

Abernathy, who typically opened the mass meetings, took the presence of the white officers in stride, and with a bit of humor, Ellwanger said. “Be sure you get it right!” Abernathy shouted at them from the pulpit, triggering laughter and breaking tension in the room.

“I will admit it was a new experience for me,” said Ellwanger, who hadn’t been involved in much interdenominational activity or “justice work.” Until that point, he had stayed focused on the needs of his parishioners, Ellwanger said.

“I didn’t come in running to join up with everybody. I came in with a lot to learn, and to grow in.”

King and key movement leaders, however, saw the value of having a local white pastor involved. Within a few weeks, Ellwanger was invited to join the “central committee,” which was meeting regularly at the Gaston Motel.

Ellwanger doesn’t recall any debate by committee members about the pivotal decision to recruit high school students and younger children to join the marches – a risky move considering the danger of dealing with Connor’s police. The idea was put forth by the Rev. James Bevel, a King aide, in an attempt to gain greater attention for the flagging protests.

“Bevel kind of did it on his own,” Ellwanger recalled, although Bevel persuaded a reluctant King to bless the strategy before moving forward.

“To Bevel’s credit, and to really underscore his commitment to nonviolence, he insisted that all the young people who were going out on the firing lines have real training and sign a commitment to nonviolence,” Ellwanger said.

“It wasn’t Bevel pulling a fast one on King, but pulling a fast one for the movement, while staying true to the principles of nonviolence.”

The strategy would later become known as the Children’s Crusade. The violent reaction by Connor and his police – which included mass arrests of children and the use of firehoses and police dogs on the young, nonviolent marchers – changed the course of the campaign.

Scenes of children being knocked down by blasts from the high-powered hoses and being carted to jail sparked international outrage, and ultimately drove city and business leaders to agree to desegregate public spaces and retail stores. It also prompted President John F. Kennedy to go on national television and announce his plan to submit legislation to Congress that would ban segregation for good.

Ellwanger didn’t participate in the Birmingham protest marches, but he did come downtown one day and witness the attacks on children.

“I was not surprised by the dogs and firehoses, because I knew Bull Connor would not stop at anything to show his power.”

A few months later, Ellwanger experienced what he believes was the avenging wrath of Connor, whose influence lingered in official circles well after Connor left public office in late May.

It was November 1963 and Ellwanger had just participated in a picket line in front of a downtown department store that had been slow to desegregate following the agreement announced with civil rights leaders.

Ellwanger was summoned to the local prosecutor’s office. There, he was accused of soliciting sex from a Black male jail trustee who worked at City Hall. The accusation was ludicrous, Ellwanger said; he’d never even met the trustee and hadn’t been to City Hall in more than a year. It was obvious the trustee had been coerced into making the statement.

The prosecutor pledged not to press charges or make the allegation public, if Ellwanger agreed to leave town. Ellwanger refused.

“I’m guessing Bull Connor had something to do with it,” Ellwanger said. “Ultimately nothing ever came of the threat.”

‘A horrendous, devastating event’

One of the darkest days in Birmingham took place on Sept. 15, 1963, when members of the Klan planted a bomb that killed four little girls attending Sunday School at 16th Street Baptist Church. The youngest was 11-year-old Denise McNair.

McNair’s father, Chris McNair, was one of Ellwanger’s parishioners at St. Paul’s. McNair was at St. Paul’s that morning, overseeing the Sunday School program, while his daughter was at 16th Street.

Parishioners at St. Paul’s heard the bomb explode at 16th Street, about 2 miles away. Within 10 minutes, a boy came running in and told the elder McNair he was needed at 16th Street Baptist Church.

“It was a horrendous, devastating event,” Ellwanger recalled. At St. Paul’s, “it was almost instantaneous to everyone: the most crestfallen sense of grief, like you would see at a funeral. It was as if the event had personally happened to all of us. The Black community took it as an event that was done personally to them, and they felt the loss universally.”

That same day, Ellwanger received a phone call from two white women – one Jewish and one Unitarian – who had been involved in some of the quiet, interracial dialogues taking place in the city. They asked Ellwanger if he would accompany them to visit the families of the four girls murdered that morning.

Ellwanger suggested the women wait a few days, but they responded it “absolutely had to be that day.” The women wanted the families to know immediately that there were people in the white community who were just as horror-struck by the murders, and who were grieving with them.

“When I saw them, their empathy, their insistence, they converted me, and I went with them. All of the parents received us graciously. What a positive experience that was,” Ellwanger said.

A few days later, Ellwanger spoke at the funeral service for three of the four girls, including Denise McNair. He was the only white person to do so. King delivered the eulogy.

“It was an unforgettable service,” with almost 800 people inside Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, and another 4,000 outside, Ellwanger said.

Citing Scripture from the Old and New Testaments, Ellwanger said he spoke about how justice and fairness lead to peace. It is a theme he continues to pursue some 60 years later.

“I can quote from a sermon I gave just two weeks ago – about what makes for justice and peace today.”  Ellwanger said. In fact, Ellwanger used a quote from King in his recent sermon, which called on the need to “substitute courage for caution” in the continuing struggle for justice in America.

“In many respects we are in a similar state of polarization today” to what existed in the country in 1963, Ellwanger asserted.

Ellwanger left Birmingham in 1967 for Milwaukee, where he pastored for 35 years at Cross Lutheran Church, an urban congregation whose racial makeup shifted from predominantly white to predominantly Black during his tenure.

Ellwanger said: “Everyone in the United States needs to realize how polarized we are, and engage courageously, not timidly” in issues of justice, such as protecting voting rights.

Fighting for the vote

The issue of voting rights is one that Ellwanger has been devoted to for decades, dating back to his days in Birmingham.

In 1965, Ellwanger became involved in the campaign for voting rights taking place then in Selma and west Alabama. At the time, the Birmingham Council on Human Relations was still one of the only interracial groups in the city that was meeting on a regular basis. It decided to plan a demonstration to support equal rights and voting rights in Selma, and to protest the mistreatment of Blacks who had been seeking voting rights in the region. The event was scheduled for Saturday, March 6.

Ellwanger said every one of the 72 people who went to Selma were white. They were men and women, professionals and ministers, as well as working people and housewives. They came from Birmingham and Mobile, Talladega and Tuscaloosa, and other cities. They gave themselves a name: the Concerned White Citizens of Alabama. It was the first time that many of them had participated in a demonstration.

Ellwanger led the group to the steps of the Dallas County Courthouse, where they were met by a phalanx of sheriff’s deputies. Also at the courthouse were a menacing group of between 200 and 300 whites, some carrying clubs and baseball bats and metal pipes. Ellwanger remembered that some of them were revving their car engines, and had spread cheese on the car manifolds, which was burning and generating an acrid smoke, a crude attempt to dissuade the demonstrators. Meanwhile, just across the street on the grounds of the federal building, stood more than 100 local Black residents, positioned in quiet solidarity with Ellwanger and his group of voting rights supporters.

Ellwanger read a statement of concern on behalf of the group, which then began to sing “America.” That triggered a response from the white protestors, who started singing “Dixie.” And that sparked the local Black supporters, who began to sing “We Shall Overcome,” drowning out “Dixie.” The only violent moment, Ellwanger said, was when one of the white “yokels” grabbed and smashed a reporter’s camera.

Ellwanger recalled another moment, when the marchers arrived at the courthouse. Initially, the voting rights demonstrators weren’t sure if the mass of deputies would try to arrest them or might even disperse them violently. Instead, the deputy in charge pulled out a telegram from Ellwanger’s superior in the Lutheran Church and read it to the group. In the telegram, the church executive stated that Ellwanger’s activities in Selma did not represent the Lutheran Church. Ellwanger responded that his superior was entitled to his opinion, but that the group was “here to demonstrate in solidarity with the voting rights movement.” The deputy stepped aside and allowed the demonstration to proceed.

The next day in Selma – March 7, 1965 – would become one of the most infamous in the modern civil rights movement. In what later became known as Bloody Sunday, state troopers and sheriff’s deputies charged and beat civil rights demonstrators at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Among the most savagely beaten was young activist John Lewis, who would go on to become a longtime congressman from Georgia.

Broadcast on television news and reported in newspapers across the country, Bloody Sunday sparked dozens of sympathy demonstrations around the country. Two day later, Ellwanger was among the more than 2,000 demonstrators who returned to Selma for “Turn-Around Tuesday.” On March 15, President Lyndon Johnson spoke to the nation about the need for voting rights reform and, on March 25, more than 25,000 demonstrators completed what’s now known as the Selma-to-Montgomery March. Five months later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was approved by Congress and signed into law.

Today, Ellwanger continues to speak out for justice and equal rights and against efforts to place new restrictions on voting.

“I see what’s going on now, with voter suppression – I see it as pushing back on the 1965 voting rights law.

“We are in danger of losing our democracy,” Ellwanger added. “We all need to be able to vote without fear.”