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People, Locations, Episodes

Sun, 03.06.1932

New Bethel Baptist Church (Detroit), a story

*New Bethel Baptist Church was founded on this date in 1932. They are one of the oldest black churches in Detroit, Michigan. 

In its early yearsV. L. Bolton was the first pastor, followed by Horatius "H.H." Coleman, N. H. Armstrong, and William E. Ramsey. In May 1946, Rev. C. L. Franklin became the pastor. When Rev. Franklin became pastor, the congregation had 400 members and met in a bowling alley at Willis and Hastings. In October 1951, the church moved into a new church, built at $250,000 with a seating capacity of 2,500, at 4210 Hastings Street in Detroit. In the 1950s, New Bethel became known for its gospel choir, which had weekly radio broadcasts.

Participants included Rev. Franklin and his daughter Aretha FranklinJames Cleveland served as organist and sometimes conductor in the early 1950s. In 1956, 14-year-old Aretha Franklin made her first recordings for J-V-B Records at New Bethel. In 1961, the church lost its Hastings Street building to the construction of the Chrysler Freeway. The church, which had 4,000 members, moved to the Gold Coast Theater (8210 Twelfth) for the next two years. On March 10, 1963, the church moved to the previously run-down Oriole Theater at Linwood and Philadelphia Avenue. Detroit architect Nathan Johnson oversaw the remodeling, which cost more than $500,000.

The project was Detroit's "first major all-Negro building project," using an architect, contractors, and financing from the Black community. The Detroit Free Press described the new structure: "The row of glass doors at the entrance and the vast expanse of whiteness inside gives one the feeling of entering a miniature Cobo Hall." More than 2,000 persons participated in a procession of cars from the temporary home at the Gold Coast Theater to the new site. During the 1960s, New Bethel, under Rev. Franklin, became the center of Detroit's American Civil Rights Movement.

Events occurring at New Bethel included: 

· In May 1963, Rev. Franklin was elected chairman of the Detroit Council of Human Rights and petitioned Detroit's Common Council for permission to conduct a march known as the Detroit Walk to Freedom. The group also adopted the "Declaration of Detroit," noting that 30% of Detroit's population was African American, yet 70% of the city's African Americans lived in substandard housing. The Detroit Walk to Freedom, planned by Rev. Franklin and members of New Bethel, took place on June 23, 1963. The protest had 125,000 persons, was the largest civil rights demonstration in the country's history, and culminated in a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. at Cobo Hall. 

· In February 1965, a rally was held at New Bethel to raise funds for Dr. King's voter registration drive in Selma, Alabama. 

· In November 1965, Coretta Scott King delivered the keynote address at New Bethel's annual Women's Day services. 

· In October 1966, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a speech at the annual men's day dinner at New Bethel. 

· In November 1966, James Meredith, five months after being shot during his March Against Fear in Mississippi, spoke at a rally at New Bethel. 

On March 29, 1969, the Republic of New Africa rented the church as a black separatist convention site. A shootout between police and members of the movement resulted in the death of a police officer. Police raided the church and arrested 150 persons in attendance. Controversy followed; the attendees were held and questioned without counsel. During the incident, police fired into the church, causing extensive damage and needing financing to repair the "bullet-scarred" building. In May 1969, as the controversy over the police raid and shooting continued,

Rev. Franklin was arrested by Detroit police, who claimed that they found marijuana in his luggage; Franklin denied the charge and asserted, "Somebody wants to disgrace me." Police had held the bags for 24 hours, and Rev. Franklin claimed he never had in his life smoked marijuana. The charge was dismissed one month later for insufficient evidence. In January 1974, two gunshots were fired into the church during a service by Rev. Franklin. Two attendees were injured.

In June 1979, Rev. Franklin was shot twice by burglars at his home in Detroit.  Franklin remained in a coma until his death from heart failure on July 27, 1984. His funeral, held at New Bethel, was reported to be the largest in Detroit history and featured Jesse Jackson. In 1987, Aretha Franklin recorded the album, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism at the church, releasing the album on the Arista label. The album was re-released in 2003 with previously unreleased songs.

In June 2016, the portion of Linwood Street adjacent to the church was renamed Rev. Dr. C. L. Franklin Boulevard. After Rev. Franklin's shooting in 1979, the church suffered from a power struggle for more than two years. In June 1982, Rev. Robert Smith, Jr., became the new pastor. Rev. Smith remains the church's pastor as of 2020. The building will be on the National Register of Historic Places in 2021.

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