September 8 , 2006

Historian Remembers Civil Rights Era Pastor Earl Stallings

"... While other white ministers did fold their hands and sit quietly during the civil rights crisis in Birmingham, Reverend Stallings proclaimed his love of mercy and justice by welcoming black visitors to First Baptist on Easter Sunday 1963..."

by S. Jonathan Bass

StallingsEditor's Note: The Reverend Earl Stallings, once assailed for welcoming black worshippers to his Birmingham church, died in February 2006. Samford History professor S. Johnathan Bass came to know Stallings while researching the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" (2001). In 2001 Samford conferred upon Stallings an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

I first heard the name Earl Stallings as an undergraduate journalism major at UAB. My professor passed out copies of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and there, on the typed page at the bottom of a list of seven other names, was Earl Stallings. I knew little about him, other than King addressed this document to Stallings and seven other clergy in the Birmingham area. “Who were these men and what did they stand for?” I asked my instructor. I’ll never forget his response, “They were religious mouth pieces for the racist leaders of Birmingham at the time.” King’s words in the “Letter” seemed to confirm this assessment of Stallings and these other religious “Pharisees.” As many other young undereducated Southern Baptists, I accepted this interpretation as an accurate portrait of men like Stallings, who were blinded by the social customs of Jim Crow and feared the change in the old order. Or as King wrote in the “Letter,” the types of white church leaders who were “more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”

But then, a few years later, I spoke with Earl Stallings. Our first conversation wasn’t one of pleasant brotherly Baptist fellowship. When I told him that I was a graduate student wanting to learn the story of his time in Birmingham, he told me that it was something he never talked about. When I dared to ask why he abruptly told me that it was none of my business and hung up the phone. It would take me the better part of a decade to build a relationship with him through prayer and persistence.  What I still didn’t understand was the pain and suffering he endured while pastor of First Baptist Church of Birmingham from 1961 to 1965. After developing a friendship with him and after almost a decade of trying to encourage Reverend Stallings to tell his story, the most he would say to me about his time in Birmingham was, “God didn’t promise us no easy times.”

Regardless, his humble deeds and personal convictions revealed that the criticisms of Martin Luther King and interpreters of the “Letter From Birmingham Jail” bore no resemblance to the life and ministry of Earl Stallings. While other white ministers did fold their hands and sit quietly during the civil rights crisis in Birmingham, Reverend Stallings proclaimed his love of mercy and justice by welcoming black visitors to First Baptist on Easter Sunday 1963.  While other white churches turned blacks away that day, Stallings told them to please come again, much to the wrath of segregationists in his congregation. Harassment, threats, and constant pressure from a small minority at the church became part of his daily life.

It troubled him, and often as he and his wife Ruth drove from their home in Mountain Brook to the downtown church, they would ask, “How much longer Lord? How much longer do we have to stay?” But Earl Stallings persevered. Years before, as a young pastor he had adopted the verses of Isaiah 43 as the key scriptures of his life: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” He believed God had him in Birmingham for a reason, and he stood fearlessly in the pulpit at First Baptist and told his congregation to choose between truth and prejudice no matter the cost: “Even if it means to be bound, even if it means to be spat upon, even if it means to be ignored, even if it means to be betrayed, even if it means to be rejected, yes even if it means to be crucified.”

Prophetic words for Stallings, who left Birmingham in 1965 for a less explosive pastorate in Marietta, Georgia. From there he went on to his path-breaking work in senior adult ministries in Arizona.  When my book on King’s “Letter” and the eight white ministers was published in 2001, Samford University honored Reverend Stallings with an honorary doctorate.  "As soon as my plane landed in Birmingham,” he later wrote me, “I felt the bitterness of 37 years begin to lift from my soul."

For the first time, we sat down face-to-face and talked about his experience in Birmingham.  He admitted that his reluctance to talk about those troubling times was because of his deep love for his wife of 64 years, Ruth, who had died in early 2001. “I could take the pressure,” he recalled, “but it is devastating to your companion, your bride, your wife, the mother of your child.” As Stallings left his home to go to work at First Baptist she would fear for his life. “She grieved for me. She prayed for me.  She stood by me.” Earl Stallings vowed to never discuss the days in Birmingham while she lived.

Regardless, he never held any bitterness about those days, although he did blame himself for many of Ruth’s medical problems that came as a result of the Birmingham trauma. “There was no anger,” he recalled. “I wasn’t angry at the people at the church, even if I did think they were evil.” Stallings never focused on the limitations of his own experience.  He looked beyond and realized God had showed him through the difficult days in Birmingham what an effective minister he was and how he came to understand the deeper calling that had been bestowed upon him to find true joy in humbly serving God by going out and helping and challenging people—something he did not only for me, but thousands of others throughout the United States.

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