The Newcomb Street Church of Christ is Decatur's oldest African-American congregation of the Church of Christ. It was established by the prominent black evangelist Marshall Keeble, who is said to have been the “driving force” for the emergence of African-American Churches of Christ in the south between 1914 and 1968.
The church first appeared in Decatur's city directory in 1922, suggesting that it was founded around this time. During the Jim Crow era, white worshippers sometimes attended its services and seating was segregated by race on these occasions. At one point, after a fire damaged the church's roof, the men of the congregation salvaged lumber from a dance hall that was being demolished for use in repairs, while the women of the church brought baskets of food to feed the members doing the work.
When the 1978 arrest of intellectually disabled church member Tommy Lee Hines sparked outrage across the Old Town community, Newcomb Street Church of Christ hosted a mass meeting at which then-pastor Alfonzo Robinson addressed a capacity crowd of concerned citizens. Days later, Southern Christian Leadership Conference project director Richard Cottonreader arrived in Decatur to help organize the response to Hines’s arrest and a local SCLC chapter was established, with the Newcomb Street church serving as provincial SCLC headquarters.
After a special grand jury charged Hines with three counts of rape, and authorities transferred Hines to Tuscaloosa’s Bryce Hospital without his attorney's knowledge, outraged protesters camped out in the lobby of the Morgan County Courthouse, refusing to leave until the district attorney granted their request for a meeting. Judge Richard Hundley responded with a ruling “that blacks could no longer congregate on courthouse property,” and a gathering at the Newcomb Street church “was called upon to protest this action at an evening rally.” A crowd of hundreds then marched on the courthouse, where they cheered as Cottonreader burned Hundley’s order in a show of defiance.
Several months later, on the eve of Hines’s trial, about thirty protesters left on foot from the Newcomb Street church and began the 33-mile trek to the courthouse in Cullman, Alabama. As they approached their destination, the marchers were greeted by thousands of white counter-protesters waving Confederate flags. “Without warning, vehicles rushed in and surrounded” the protesters, while “about 80 officers, some in helmets and riot gear, formed a barrier to force the blacks back and demanded that they turn around.” Suddenly, shots rang out and panic-stricken protesters “ran wildly, jumping into cars that were at the rear of their caravan.”
The marchers returned from Decatur by car just in time for the opening of the trial, parking at the Cullman city limits and resuming their procession on foot from there. Once again, however, they encountered “a taunting white crowd,” and police in riot gear arrested several protesters in violation of a “mutual agreement to allow the march and to diffuse tension.” Dr. Joseph Lowery, president of the SCLC, paid the $300 bond to secure their release. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in any more hostile an environment,” Lowery would later say, “not even in Selma or in Montgomery.”
Brother Alphonso Robinson, pastor of Newcomb Street Church of Christ, was called as a witness in Hines’s Cullman trial, praising Hines “for his love of the church… faithfulness, and regular attendance.” During his testimony, “a man rushed into the courtroom and handed the judge a note” warning that a bomb had been planted in the courthouse and would explode in three hours, which thankfully proved to be a hoax. An all-white jury nonetheless found the defendant guilty, and the presiding judge handed down a thirty-year sentence, which he would later admit “was the longest sentence for rape that he had handed down in his six-year career.”
We'll continue the Tommy Lee Hines story later in the tour. To visit the next stop, head west on Lafayette Street and tap the button below.