Looking Forward: Clayborn Temple Revival



By Sandi Butler Hughes

Photography by McKendree Walker

On April 4 as the world remembers the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Memphians can mark the occasion at ground zero for the sanitation workers strike: I AM A MAN Plaza at the historic Clayborn Temple. In February 1968, over 1,000 workers marched twice daily from Clayborn Temple to City Hall, demanding better wages and working conditions. The marchers gathered where the Plaza stands today. As they marched, they carried signs that read, “I AM A MAN.” The signs had been originally printed in the basement of the Clayborn Temple, and it was a rallying cry for the striking workers and the reason Dr. King came to Memphis.

Clayborn Temple has a storied history in Downtown Memphis. It was originally built in 1892 as Second Presbyterian Church, and it became home to an African American Methodist Episcopal congregation and was renamed Clayborn Temple in 1949 to honor Bishop John Henry Clayborn. In 1979, the beautiful building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Abandoned and empty, the building closed permanently in 1999, and remained dormant until 2016 when Frank Smith and Rob Thompson bought the property. In 2017, ownership of the building was transferred to Memphis Leadership Foundation, and work began to stabilize the infrastructure.

In 2023, Clayborn Temple completed a $6 million renovation, and one of the most striking features are the stained glass windows. Most of the windows date back to the 1892 original building, but for decades the windows were covered with plywood. Many were broken, and all were in need of restoration and repair. Pearl River Glass in Jackson, Mississippi, restored and reinstalled the stained glass. It was essential to the integrity of the building to preserve the windows. The windows on the north side of the building are 95% original, but the front and southfacing windows needed to be completely reimagined. Five key people were selected to be memorialized in stained glass. These were regular, everyday citizens who had a profound impact in the 1968 strike and ultimately the Civil Rights Movement.

• T.O. Jones - a terminated sanitation worker and agitator for equal wages and safety; he formed local American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in
November 1964; as AFSCME President, he fought for workers' economic justice throughout the duration of the strike. • Cornelia Crenshaw - noted as “The Mother of the Civil Rights
Movement in Memphis;” she adapted the Robert Worsham poem “I Am A Man” for the strike; she organized efforts to provide support to the workers while on strike and without income.

• Larry Payne - a 16-year-old high school student who participated in a march with MLK March 28, 1968 that resulted in chaos; he was subsequently shot and killed by a police officer. After a local and federal investigation in 1968 and again in 2007, the police officer was exonerated. Over 600 people attended Larry’s funeral at Clayborn Temple on April 1, 1968.

• Rev. James Lawson - leading activist in the Civil Rights Movement, he was expelled from Vanderbilt University for his activism; he served as Chairman of the sanitation workers strike committee and extended the invitation to Dr. King to speak in Memphis.

• Maxine Smith - Executive Secretary of the Memphis branch of the NAACP from 1962 until 1995; in 1968, she was on the coordinating committee of the sanitation workers strike.

Clayborn Temple restoration continues with the $25M Phase III of the entire interior including the sanctuary, the library, and the magnificent pipe organ. The J.W. Steere & Sons  organ was delivered and installed in 1892, and it was the largest pipe organ in the city and in the upper south of the eastern United States. This grand instrument will undergo a $2.5M restoration this summer, and it will once again be a functioning piece of history. "It's really exciting to be involved in the restoration of such a historic and critical building in our nation's history, and to imagine what it will be for all who enter the building, the neighborhood, and for our entire city,” said Anasa Troutman, Executive Director of Clayborn Temple.

The restoration will be completed in 2026. The vision for Clayborn Temple is to make this sacred space a premier cultural arts center with community-based programming, and a place to gather and celebrate by remembering the past and connecting for the future.

Clayborn Temple will host an event that will be held around April 4 to commemorate the assassination of Dr. King. For up-to-date programming information, visit clayborn.org.


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