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Ebenezer Baptist Church fitting site for John Lewis’ funeral

Photo of the Ebenezer Baptist Church located near The King Center in Atlanta on January 15th, 2018.  (Photo by Phil Skinner)
Photo of the Ebenezer Baptist Church located near The King Center in Atlanta on January 15th, 2018. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

134-year-old Atlanta church steeped in history, culture

It is no surprise that John Lewis’ funeral would be held at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Big things happen at the 134-year-old church where Martin Luther King Jr. grew up and became co-pastor. It’s where Atlanta’s Black community has always gathered for worship and comfort.

In 2015, when nine people were killed at The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, Atlantans gathered at Ebenezer.

In 2016, when 49 people were killed in the Pulse night club in Orlando, Atlantans gathered at Ebenezer.

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A woman stands during the Martin Luther King, Jr. annual commemorative service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Monday, Jan. 20, 2020. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL
A woman stands during the Martin Luther King, Jr. annual commemorative service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Monday, Jan. 20, 2020. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

Credit: Branden Camp / Special

Credit: Branden Camp / Special

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Last month, when Rayshard Brooks was killed by a member of the Atlanta Police Department and the eyes of the world were on Atlanta, his funeral was at Ebenezer.

“Ebenezer is a place that people turn to in these moments of crisis in this city and the nation,” said Raphael G. Warnock, Ebenezer’s senior pastor. “People saw it as a place where they could bring their pain, and families saw it as a sanctuary for them in a time of need. And John Lewis is an important part of this story.”

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Rev. Raphael G. Warnock delivers the eulogy for Rayshard Brooks at his funeral in Ebenezer Baptist Church on June 23, 2020 in Atlanta. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Rev. Raphael G. Warnock delivers the eulogy for Rayshard Brooks at his funeral in Ebenezer Baptist Church on June 23, 2020 in Atlanta. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

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For Lewis, a civil rights icon and long-time pillar of the United States House of Representatives, a service at Ebenezer would seem like a natural.

“But you also have to remember this,” said Warnock. “John Lewis is a member of Ebenezer.”

So Thursday, as the world says goodbye to a global figure, the church will honor a longtime parishioner, who on Dec. 21, 1968 was married in Ebenezer in a small ceremony conducted by King’s father, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr.

Lewis died July 17 at the age of 80.

Warnock will officiate the funeral. Warnock also is running for the United States Senate as a Democrat, Lewis’ party.

Congressman John Lewis (center) attended the Martin Luther King Jr. Annual Ecumenical Commemorative Service at Ebenezer Baptist Church on January 15, 2018. (Photo by Phil Skinner)
Congressman John Lewis (center) attended the Martin Luther King Jr. Annual Ecumenical Commemorative Service at Ebenezer Baptist Church on January 15, 2018. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

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Since Saturday, Lewis’ life has been celebrated in Troy, Alabama, where he was born; Selma, where he was nearly killed leading marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge; Montgomery, the capital of his home state; and Washington, D.C., where he was a legislator.

He came home Wednesday, where his body lay in state at the Georgia State Capitol building before Thursday’s funeral at Ebenezer.

One of the most historically significant churches in the country, along with the National Cathedral in Washington and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, Ebenezer is one of Atlanta’s most visited sites as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Site.

The life and religious career of King Jr., whose funeral was held there on April 9, 1968, came full circle at Ebenezer.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preaches to the congregation in Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga. on April 30, 1967. In the sermon, King urged America to repent and abandon what he called its "Tragic, reckless adventure in Vietnam." King was the co-pastor of Ebenezer from 1960 until 1968. (AP Photo)
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preaches to the congregation in Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga. on April 30, 1967. In the sermon, King urged America to repent and abandon what he called its "Tragic, reckless adventure in Vietnam." King was the co-pastor of Ebenezer from 1960 until 1968. (AP Photo)

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He was baptized there at 5. He preached his first sermon there at 17 and his last one, “Drum Major Instinct,” on Feb. 4, 1968, exactly two months before he was killed in Memphis.

That last sermon would also serve as his eulogy. His family played it at his funeral.

Warnock said that King Jr., “for all of his brilliance, stood as a beneficiary of a moral tradition of faith and freedom fighting that was passed on to him.”

President Jimmy Carter sings with, from left, Martin Luther King Sr., Rosalynn Carter, Andrew Young and Coretta Scott King at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Jan. 14, 1979. Carter was there to accept the Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolence Peace Prize. (Jimmy Carter Library)
President Jimmy Carter sings with, from left, Martin Luther King Sr., Rosalynn Carter, Andrew Young and Coretta Scott King at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Jan. 14, 1979. Carter was there to accept the Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolence Peace Prize. (Jimmy Carter Library)

Credit: Jimmy Carter Library

Credit: Jimmy Carter Library

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Ebenezer was founded in 1886 under the Rev. John A. Parker, who served as its first pastor at the original site nearby, on what is now Airline Street.

King’s maternal grandfather, the Rev. Adam D. Williams, became pastor in 1894 and saw the church experience its first significant growth. After moving to several locations in downtown Atlanta, Williams settled on the plot of land on Auburn Avenue and built the brick Late Gothic Revival-style church, which was completed in 1922.

Williams was also active politically, serving as president of the Atlanta NAACP and helping push a bond referendum to build Atlanta’s first black high school.

Martin Luther King Sr., who would marry Rev. Williams’ daughter, Alberta, became the pastor in 1931. In 1935, some 30 years before Lewis and King Jr. pushed the passage of the Voting Rights Act, King Sr. was campaigning for voting rights in Atlanta.

Martin Luther King Sr. participates in a service in Ebenezer Baptist in 1982.
Martin Luther King Sr. participates in a service in Ebenezer Baptist in 1982.

Credit: Nick Arroyo / AJC

Credit: Nick Arroyo / AJC

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A member of the King family was pastor of the church for 81 years, from the day that Williams took the helm in 1894 to King Sr.‘s retirement in 1975, a year after his wife was murdered in the church while playing “The Lord’s Prayer.”

King Jr. served as co-pastor of the church from 1960 until his death in 1968. The church held 750 people, and every seat was filled for King’s funeral. The service is remembered for the iconic photo of a five-year-old Bernice King on her mother Coretta Scott King’s lap.

Coretta King had demanded that the photographer, representing Ebony magazine, be allowed in or she would ban all photographers. The photo would make Moneta Sleet Jr. the first Black person to win a Pulitzer Prize for journalism.

Coretta Scott King and her daughter Bernice, 5, are shown April 9, 1968 attending the funeral of her husband, Martin Luther King Jr., in Atlanta in this Pulitzer-prize winning photograph taken by Moneta J. Sleet Jr. (AP Photo)
Coretta Scott King and her daughter Bernice, 5, are shown April 9, 1968 attending the funeral of her husband, Martin Luther King Jr., in Atlanta in this Pulitzer-prize winning photograph taken by Moneta J. Sleet Jr. (AP Photo)

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In 1999, the congregation, then led by the Rev. Joseph Roberts, moved 75 yards across the street to what is known as the Horizon Sanctuary.

Horizon Sanctuary, where Lewis’ services will be held, holds nearly 2,000 people. Its ceiling skylight runs along the spine of the church and its walls harbor high windows that bathe the church with light.

African carvings adorn most of the wood in the church.

Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church
407 Auburn Ave NE, Atlanta, GA 30312
Throughout its long history, Ebenezer Baptist Church has been a spiritual home to many citizens of the "Sweet Auburn" community. Its most famous member, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was baptized as a child in the church.
 (FRANK NIEMEIR/AJC staff)
Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church 407 Auburn Ave NE, Atlanta, GA 30312 Throughout its long history, Ebenezer Baptist Church has been a spiritual home to many citizens of the "Sweet Auburn" community. Its most famous member, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was baptized as a child in the church. (FRANK NIEMEIR/AJC staff)

Credit: Frank Niemeir

Credit: Frank Niemeir

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The old church, with its iconic blue sign, has been completely renovated to look as it did in 1968, and it has since been incorporated into the National Historical Site and operated by the National Park Service.

Warnock, who took over in 2005, is the congregation’s fifth pastor in its 135 years.