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Ralph Abernathy Photograph by Warren K. Leffler, 1968. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (U.S. News and World Report Collection: LC-U9-19265).

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Abernathy, Ralph David (11 March 1926–17 April 1990), civil rights leader and minister, was born David Abernathy in Linden, Alabama, the son of William L. Abernathy and Louivery Valentine Bell, farmers. A sister’s favorite professor was the inspiration for the nickname “Ralph David,” and although Abernathy never made a legal change, the name remained with him from age twelve....

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Brooks, Walter Henderson (30 August 1851–06 July 1945), clergyman, temperance leader, and poet, was born in Richmond, Virginia, the son of Albert Royal Brooks and Lucy Goode, slaves. Brooks’s father was an enterprising slave who owned his own “snack house” and a livery business that brought him into contact with some of Virginia’s wealthiest citizens, including his wife’s owner, German consul Daniel Von Groning. Albert Brooks purchased his wife’s freedom in 1862 for $800. Still a slave, Walter Brooks at age seven was sold to the Turpin & Yarborough tobacco firm. He woefully recalled his time there, writing: “It was all I could do to perform the task assigned to my little hands. What I do remember is that I stood in mortal fear of ‘the consequences’ of failing to do what was required of me.” When the Richmond manufacturer fell victim to wartime economic decline, Brooks was allowed to reside with his mother and began working in hotels, boardinghouses, and restaurants. In his youth he acquired the doctrines that served as the foundation for his life’s work. He learned temperance from his pastor, the Reverend ...

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De Baptiste, Richard (11 November 1831–21 April 1901), Baptist leader and race advocate, was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, to free parents, Eliza (maiden name unknown) and William De Baptiste. Born in a slave state when individuals were fined and incarcerated for teaching blacks, enslaved or free, De Baptiste was fortunate to have parents who earnestly sought to educate their children and some relatives in their home, despite the law and heavy surveillance. In 1846 the De Baptistes moved to Detroit, Michigan. De Baptiste then received additional education and for some time attended classes at the University of Chicago. Having been the leading building and manufacturing contractor in Fredericksburg, the elder De Baptiste, after an unsuccessful partnership in a grocery enterprise, returned to his earlier work. Richard De Baptiste became a partner in the business before his twenty-first birthday and served for some years as its manager. From 1858 to about 1861 he also taught black youth in the public schools of Mount Pleasant, Hamilton County, Ohio....

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Hill, Charles Andrew (28 April 1893–08 February 1970), pastor and African American civil rights activist, was born in Detroit, Michigan, the son of Edward Hill and Mary Lance. He attended local public schools before graduating from Cleary Business College in Yipsilanti (1914) and Lincoln University near Philadelphia (1919). He also attended Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and in 1918 entered the ministry. Hill assisted at the Second Baptist Church and within two years he became pastor of Hartford Avenue Baptist Church, expanding it from thirty-five to several hundred congregants nearly fifty years later. In 1919 he wed Georgia Roberta Underwood and began a family of eight children....

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Johns, Vernon Napoleon (22 April 1892–10 June 1965), Baptist pastor and civil rights pioneer, was born in Darlington Heights, near Farmville, Prince Edward County, Virginia, the son of Willie Johns, a Baptist preacher and farmer, and Sallie Branch Price. At age three, according to family tradition, young Vernon began preaching “on the doorstep or on a stump.” Two years later he went with his older sister Jessie to a one-room school four miles from the Johnses’ home. At seven, Vernon was kicked in the face by a mule. The injury scarred his left cheek, damaged his eyesight, and caused his left eyelid to twitch throughout his life. Johns later compensated for his weak eyesight by committing long passages of poetry and scripture to memory....

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Martin Luther King, Jr. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-116776).

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Martin Luther King Shaking hands with Jimmy Carter, 1976. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-113655).

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King, Martin Luther (19 December 1897–11 November 1984), Baptist pastor and civil rights activist, was born Michael King in Stockbridge, Georgia, the son of James Albert King, an impoverished sharecropper, and Delia Linsey, a cleaning woman and laundress. As a boy King attended school from three to five months a year in an old frame building, where Mrs. Lowe, the wife of the pastor of Floyd’s Chapel Baptist Church, taught 234 children in all grades. At Floyd’s Chapel, King gained confidence as a singer and had a growing sense of a call to preach. At fifteen, when he delivered a trial sermon at Floyd’s Chapel and was licensed to preach, King had learned to read but could not yet write. As a young country preacher he occasionally visited Atlanta. At twenty he left Stockbridge and settled there. He lived in a rooming house and worked at various jobs, including making tires in a rubber plant, loading bales of cotton, and driving a barber-supply truck....

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King, Martin Luther, Jr. (15 January 1929–04 April 1968), Baptist minister and civil rights leader, was born Michael King, Jr., in Atlanta, Georgia, the son of the Reverend Michael King ( Martin Luther King) and Alberta Williams. Born to a family with deep roots in the African-American Baptist church and in the Atlanta black community, the younger King spent his first twelve years in the home on Auburn Avenue that his parents shared with his maternal grandparents. A block away, also on Auburn, was Ebenezer Baptist Church, where his grandfather, the Reverend Adam Daniel Williams, had served as pastor since 1894. Under Williams’s leadership, Ebenezer had grown from a small congregation without a building to become one of Atlanta’s prominent African-American churches. After Williams’s death in 1931, his son-in-law became Ebenezer’s new pastor and gradually established himself as a major figure in state and national Baptist groups. In 1934 the elder King, following the request of his own dying father, changed his name and that of his son to Martin Luther King....

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Martin, John Sella ( September 1832– August 1876), minister and abolitionist, was born into slavery in Charlotte, North Carolina, the son of Winnifred, a mulatto slave, and the nephew of his mother’s owner. He had one sister. In an eighteen-year period he was sold eight times. Martin taught himself to read and write. In 1856 he used those skills and his employment as a boatman on the Mississippi River to escape to Cairo, Illinois....

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Murray, Orson S. (23 October 1806–14 June 1885), Baptist minister, editor, and radical reformer, was born in Orwell, Vermont, the son of Jonathan Murray and Rosalinda Bascom, farmers. Murray grew up impoverished on a hardscrabble farm in Orwell, obtaining only a few years of schooling. His parents were devout Free Will Baptists, and as a teenager Murray felt called to the Baptist ministry. In 1828 he married Catherine Maria Higgins; the couple had nine children. Determined to have a classical education, he returned to school at the Shoreham and Castleton academies, completing his studies in 1832....

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Pettiford, William Reuben (20 January 1847–21 September 1914), pastor, banker, and race leader, was born in Granville County, North Carolina, the son of William Pettiford and Matilda (maiden name unknown), farmers. Pettiford, a free black, spent his early years laboring on the family farm. He received a rudimentary education at home and then attended Marion Normal School and was employed from 1877 to 1880 as a teacher and financial agent at Selma Institute (now Selma University). In 1869 he married Mary Jane Farley, who died that same year. In 1873 he married Jennie Powell, who died in September 1874. In 1880 he married Della Boyd, with whom he had three children. She outlived him....

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Potter, Ray (22 June 1795–01 March 1858), Baptist minister and businessman, was born in Cranston, Rhode Island, the son of Andrew Potter, a carpenter and revolutionary war veteran, and Minerva Remington. At the age of seventeen Potter experienced a dramatic conversion at the local Six Principle Baptist Church; that same year (1812) he married Minerva Bennett. They had nine children. In 1820 he and his family left the “closed communion” of the Six Principle Church and joined with Freewill Baptists who were then organizing a new church in Pawtucket, a prosperous mill village near the Massachusetts border. There Potter taught school to support his family, attended nightly meetings, and preached three times on Sunday. Converts into his new Freewill church came from rural families, who after moving into factory work were reluctant to attend the churches favored by mill owners and managers....

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Rauschenbusch, Walter (04 October 1861–25 July 1918), Baptist Social Gospel advocate, was born in Rochester, New York, the son of the Reverend Augustus Rauschenbusch, a seminary professor, and Caroline Rhomp. Responding to a call to minister to German immigrants to the United States, the elder Rauschenbusch immigrated to Missouri in 1846, though he retained close associations with Germany the rest of his life. Consequently, in 1879 he sent his son to the Gymnasium in Gütersloh, Westphalia, from which he graduated in 1883. After receiving his B.A. from the University of Rochester in 1884, Rauschenbusch earned a theology degree in 1886 from Rochester Seminary, where his father was professor of New Testament Interpretation in the German division from 1858 until his retirement in 1888....

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William James Simmons. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-90544).

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Simmons, William James (26 June 1849–30 October 1890), Baptist leader, educator, and race advocate, was born in Charleston, South Carolina, the son of enslaved parents, Edward Simmons and Esther (maiden name unknown). During his youth, Simmons’s mother escaped slavery with him and two of his siblings, relocating in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Simmons’s uncle, Alexander Tardieu (or Tardiff), a shoemaker, became a father for the children and a protector and provider for the fugitive slave family. He moved them among the cities of Philadelphia, Roxbury, Massachusetts, and Chester, Pennsylvania, constantly eluding persistent “slave catchers,” before permanently taking residence in Bordentown, New Jersey. While Simmons never received formal elementary or secondary school education, his uncle made a point of teaching the children to read and write. As a youth Simmons served as an assistant to a white dentist in Bordentown. At the age of fifteen he joined the Union army, participating in a number of major battles in Virginia and finding himself at Appomattox in 1865. After the war, Simmons once again worked briefly as a dental assistant. He converted and affiliated with the white Baptist church in Bordentown in 1867, announced his call to the ministry, and ventured to college with the financial support of church friends....

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Williams, Hosea (5 Jan. 1926–16 Nov. 2000), civil rights activist, minister, and politician, was born Hosea Lorenzo Williams in Vilence, Florida, to Lecenia Williams and William Wiggins. After his mother died when Williams was ten years old, he was raised in Attapulgus, Georgia, by his grandparents Lena and Turner Williams. During his teen years he dropped out of high school and moved to Tallahassee, Florida for work. Shortly thereafter he entered the US Army during World War II and earned the rank of staff sergeant, receiving the military decoration of the Purple Heart during his military tenure. After his military service he returned to Georgia and finished Hutto High School in Bainbridge, Georgia, at the age of twenty-three....