ROBERT REED CHURCH, JR. (1885-1952)
Church, Jr., a political leader of color in Memphis and the nation, was
born on October 26, 1885, at the family home, 384 South Lauderdale Street,
in Memphis. He was one of the two children of Robert R. and Anna (Wright)
Church. His sister was Annette E. Church. He was educated at Mrs. Julia
Hooks's kindergarten, by private tutors, and at parochial schools in Memphis.
Further education was obtained at Morgan Park Military Academy, Morgan
Park,Illinois, and Berlin and the Parkard School of Business, New York.
He completed his education by spending two years learning banking on Wall
Robert Church, Jr., returned to Memphis, where
he became the manager of Church's Park and Auditorium. He later became
cashier of the Solvent Savings Bank and Trust Company, founded by his father,
succeeding him as president after his death. Within a few years, he resigned
this position to manage the family's extensive real estate holdings. On
July 26,1911, Robert Church, Jr., married Sara P. Johnson of Washington,
D. C., in that city. They became the parents of one child, Sara Roberta.
In 1916, Robert Church, Jr., founded and financed the Lincoln League
in Memphis, which was established to organize the masses of black citizens
to register and vote. It was his conviction that the ballot was the medium
through which citizens of color could obtain civil rights. The Lincoln
League organized voter registration drives, voting schools, and paid poll
taxes for voters. Within a few months, the League had registered 10,000
voters. A Lincoln League Ticket was entered in the 1916 election, which
included a black candidate for the Congress. The ticket lost, but it established
the Lincoln League as a viable and respected political force in Memphis;
the League later expanded into a statewide and national organization.
In 1917, Church organized the Memphis Branch of the National Association
for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the first branch in Tennessee.
In 1919, he was elected to the national board of directors for the NAACP,
representing fourteen southern states.
There were two factions of the Republican party in Memphis during Church's
lifetime: one labeled by the daily press as the "Lily-White"
(all white) wing of the party, and the other led by Church and called by
the daily newspaper the "Black and Tans" (Negro and white). Robert
Church, Jr., was a delegate from Memphis to eight successive Republican
National Conventions from 1912-1940, having to battle each time with the
white faction opposed to black participation in the party. Since Church's
organization supplied the votes which carried the Republicans to victory
in Memphis and Shelby County, he, as leader, was consulted by national
party officials about federal patronage. Because the political climate
in the South during his lifetime had not reached the point where he could
recommend qualified black candidates for U. S. Postmaster, federal judge,
U. S. Attorney, etc., he very carefully selected and recommended for those
positions white candidates whom he thought were qualified men and who would
perform their duties fairly and justly in the best interests of all segments
of the population. He was requested frequently to recommend individuals
for federal jobs in other southern states. He was consulted about political
strategy by Republican Presidents and other high party officials so often
that Time magazine referred to Church as the "roving dictator
of the Lincoln Belt."
In the 1920s, when Robert Church, Jr., was at the height of his political
influence, E. H. Crump, the Memphis Democratic leader, had not reached
his political zenith. Church and Crump had totally disparate political
philosophies and maintained autonomous political organizations. When it
became necessary to discuss political procedures with the city administration,
such as primary or general elections, county conventions, etc., Church
wasrepresented by attorneys from his group, usually Josiah T. Settle, Jr.,
a Negro, and George Klepper and Baily Walsh, both of whom were white. Since
it was not possible for a Republican to be elected mayor of Memphis, Church
occasionally supported Democratic candidates he thought would be fair to
Negroes, such as Watkins Overton, a family friend.
In 1940, when it appeared that Wendell Wilkie, the Republican candidate
for President, might defeat incumbent President Franklin D. Roosevelt,
in order to prevent Church's return to power (should the Republicans win
the election), the city administration moved to destroy Church's political
base by seizing his real estate holdings, allegedly for back taxes. At
the same time, the city administration moved against two prominent Church
associates: Dr. J. B. Martin, owner of the South Memphis Drug Store on
south Florida Street, and Elmer Atkinson, proprietor of a cafe on Beale
Street. City policemen, stationed at the front entrances of the men's establishments,
searched all customers who entered, causing Martin and Atkinson to sustain
tremendous financial losses. Atkinson had to close his cafe. Martin and
Atkinson moved to Chicago, and Church established himself in Washington,
D. C. Church Park and Auditorium was renamed "Beale Avenue Auditorium,"
and the family home was burned, ostensibly to test some of the City's new
At the invitation of his friend, A. Philip Randolph, the distinguished
Negro labor leader, Church accepted membership on the board of directors
of the National Council For A Permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee
(now known as Equal Employment Opportunity) and worked tirelessly for the
enactment of such legislation. In 1944, he organized and was elected chairman
of the Republican American Committee, a group of 200 Negro Republican leaders
from thirty-two states, who united to pressure Republican senators and
congressmen to enact fair employment and other civil rights' legislation.
Church visited Memphis in 1952, after attending the Republican State
Convention in Nashville, to promote General Dwight D. Eisenhower as the
Republican candidate for President. He was talking Republican politics
when he died of a fatal heart attack on April 17, 1952.