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‘The Epitome of Greatness’: Rev. Frank Dukes, Civil Rights Icon, Eulogized in Birmingham

Maranathan Academy ambasaadors and alumni friends outside St. Joseph Baptist Church in Birmingham on Nov, 18, 2023 serve as flower bearers following services for the Rev. Frank Dukes. (Barnett Wright, The Birmingham Times)

By Barnett Wright

The Birmingham Times

The Rev. Frank Dukes, a legend of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement whose Selective Buying Campaign helped dismantle segregation in the city, was remembered on Saturday, November 18, as an icon, a minister, a friend, and a hero during his homegoing service at St. Joseph Baptist Church.

Mr. Dukes died on November 11 at age 92.

“He was the epitome of greatness,” said Dr. Jonathan McPherson Sr., pastor of St. John Baptist Church, Edgewater, who delivered the eulogy. “Somebody might ask, ‘Why do you call him a great man? He didn’t have a million dollars in the bank.’ But Jesus said. … ‘The greatest of all is the servant of all.’”

He added, “I want to say to his daughter, Donna, and his family, weep not, weep not, he is not dead; he is resting in the bosom of Jesus. … We say to Donna and the family, and all of the Lord’s people, keep your hand in God’s hand and everything will be alright.”

Cover of program of Homegoing Services for The Rev. Frank Dukes

The 90-minute service paid homage to Dukes’ legacy of activism and life as a man of faith who dedicated his life to equality of all. Among those attending the service were Jefferson County Sheriff Mark Pettway; Alabama State Rep. Juandalynn Givan; Jefferson County Commissioner Sheila Tyson; Author T.K. Thorne; past and present Miles College presidents George T. French Jr. and Bobbie Knight, respectively; and pastors from throughout the area.

Power Of Nonviolent Protest

In the early 1960s, McPherson, who was on the Miles College faculty at the time, and Dukes, as a 31-year-old Miles Student Government Association (SGA) president, organized students to challenge Birmingham’s stringent segregation through the Selective Buying Campaign.

“The state of Alabama had outlawed the boycott because [the Rev.] Dr. Martin Luther King was successful with the boycott in Montgomery,” McPherson said during the eulogy. “So [Dukes] said, ‘We don’t have to worry about a boycott. We will just teach our people a Selective Buying Campaign. … We will tell Blacks to teach their money to have some sense.’”

Leading up to the Easter shopping season in 1962, McPherson recalled that Dukes asked Black shoppers, “Why go into segregated stores to spend $300 on a new Easter outfit when you aren’t allowed to spend 30 cents on a hot dog?”

The Selective Buying Campaign demonstrated the power of nonviolent protest. In fact, it was so successful that the following year King came to Birmingham to lead nonviolent demonstrations to end segregation.

“We thank God that [Dukes] came along when George Wallace, the [Alabama] governor, said ‘Segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.’ … We thank God for [Dukes’] military service for our country. … Dukes served in the military and came to Miles College and served as the president over our SGA,” said McPherson.

Current Miles College SGA President Caleb Moore said every student who comes to campus learns about Dukes’ contributions to, and the school’s role in, the Civil Rights Movement. A historic marker was erected in 2014 on the Miles College campus to enshrine its place in Civil Rights history.

“The word he lived behind was ‘Purpose,’” Moore said during the service of Dukes. “During his time in college, he fought against segregation. … He made sure he was on the street leading voter registration drives for people of color and opening doors for [King] to come here. That was his purpose.”

“We want to make sure every SGA president who comes will have a purpose,” Moore added. “We will make sure that … each SGA president that comes behind me understands that they need to have a purpose.”

“Help Change Birmingham”

Frank Dukes was born on Nov. 17, 1930, in Fairfield, Alabama. At an early age, he became a member of Antioch Baptist Church. After earning his diploma from Fairfield Industrial High School, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and fought in the Korean War. It was in the Army that he first experienced integration and knew he wanted to make changes back home.

After hearing about Dukes’ death last week, Birmingham historian Horace Huntley told The Birmingham Times, “I really looked up to him because he had a varied background, meaning he grew up here in Birmingham, he’d gone off to the service and grew up in the military, and then he came back and was not afraid to challenge. A lot of us when we left [the city], we always had in our mind that we were coming back to help change Birmingham, to solve the problems of Birmingham, and he epitomized that thought.”

Huntley interviewed Dukes in 1995 for the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s Oral History Project.

After returning home from the military and enrolling at Miles, Dukes became a first-time father to a baby girl, Fran Sharon, while earning his bachelor’s degree in elementary education. He later served as director of alumni affairs at the school.

Dukes continued his activism with the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the NAACP. He also served as a bodyguard for King in Birmingham.

In 1967, he met and married Jacquelyn Bates Dukes and welcomed daughter Donna. The couple was married for 34 years before Jacquelyn Bates Dukes passed away on November 25, Thanksgiving night, 2004.

Dukes worked alongside his daughter Donna at Maranatha Academy, a school she founded to provide opportunities for at-risk students and a pipeline to college and career training.

In 2018, the University of Alabama honored Dukes with the Mountaintop Award, an annual lifetime achievement award presented to a person who has demonstrated a commitment to justice.

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