Civil Rights Pioneer, Leader Rev. Woods Dies

Published on
the Boston Globe

Civil Rights Pioneer, Leader Rev. Woods Dies

Dennis Hevesi

The Rev. Abraham L. Woods Jr. at a unity breakfast with his wife, Marian. He was one of the civil rights leaders behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during his ''I Have a Dream'' speech. (John woods/file 2008)

NEW YORK - The Rev. Abraham L. Woods Jr., a civil rights campaigner
who led the first lunch-counter sit-ins in Birmingham, Ala., and three
decades later played a pivotal role confronting racial discrimination
by country clubs, died last Friday in Birmingham, his hometown. He was

The cause was cancer, said his son, Abraham Woods III.

Rev. Woods, a Baptist minister who had been friends with the Rev.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. since their days together at Morehouse
College in Atlanta, was one of the civil rights leaders standing behind
him when King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech Aug. 28, 1963, from the
steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Less than a month later, on Sept. 15, Rev. Woods raced from his
church in Birmingham, St. Joseph Baptist, to the 16th Street Baptist
Church minutes after a dynamite explosion there had killed four young
black girls.

"People were searching through the rubble," he told The New York
Times in 1997. "They found shoes. Finally they found bodies. You could
smell the human flesh.

"Even the Klan, as bad as they are," he continued, "you didn't think
they would go as far as to bomb a church on Sunday with little children
in Sunday school."

Rev. Woods was interviewed 34 years after the church bombing, a
seminal civil rights event, because he had played a leading role in
spurring the federal government to re-investigate it. Only one man,
Robert E. Chambliss, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, had been convicted,
in 1977. The new investigation led to the conviction of two other
Klansmen, Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry.

In 1990, Rev. Woods, then president of the Birmingham chapter of the
Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led protests against the
Shoal Creek Golf and Country Club, just outside the city. The club,
which had no black members, had been chosen as the site of that year's
PGA Championship, and its founder, Hall Thompson, defended it by
saying, "We don't discriminate in every other area except the blacks."

The protests prompted major corporations, including IBM,
to withdraw their advertising from ABC's television coverage of the
tournament. In response, the club announced that it would accept black

David B. Fay, executive director of the US Golf Association, said at
the time that the events at Shoal Creek had changed the face of golf.

"I find it highly unlikely that you will see any championships held
at all-white clubs anymore," Fay said. "The change is inevitable."

Abraham Lincoln Woods Jr. was born in Birmingham, one of 11 children
of the Rev. Abraham Woods Sr. and the former Maggie Wallace.

Rev. Woods attended Morehouse with King in the late 1940s.

He later received a bachelor's degree in theology from Birmingham
Baptist College; a bachelor's in sociology from Miles College, in
Birmingham; and a master's in American history from the University of

In the 1950s, he helped organize voter registration drives in
Alabama. And then, in the spring of 1963, he led the first black
demonstration at a whites-only lunch counter, at Newberry's department
store in downtown Birmingham.

During the demonstrations that followed, King arrived in the city to
confront the tactics of its public safety commissioner, Bull Connor,
who had turned dogs and fire hoses on protesters. King, Rev. Woods,
other civil rights leaders, and hundreds of additional protesters were

Responding to appeals from liberal white Southern clergymen to stop
the demonstrations, King wrote his landmark "Letter From Birmingham
Jail," in which he said not only that civil disobedience was justified
in the face of unjust laws, but also that "one has a moral
responsibility to disobey unjust laws."

Rev. Woods retired as president of the Birmingham chapter of the
Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 2006, but remained pastor
of St. Joseph Baptist Church until his death.

Besides his son, Abraham, he leaves his wife of 60 years, the former
Marian Dowdell-Levette; four brothers; four sisters; five daughters; 18
grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.

One granddaughter, Marian Bell, said Rev. Woods followed the
presidential campaign this year with mounting hopes, 45 years after

On election night last week, in his hospital room, Bell asked him what he thought about the results.

He said, "If I could wake up Martin, Coretta, Rosa," along with
other leaders of the struggle, "I would tell them that my son Barack
made it."


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