Fred Taylor began civil rights work as a child (2024)

Frederick Douglass Taylor seemed destined to work in the Civil Rights Movement. And he did, starting with the Montgomery bus boycott, moving to the walk from Selma to Montgomery and ending with a long career with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

“He never sought the limelight,” said the Rev. Gerald Durley, past president of the Concerned Black Clergy of Atlanta. The two met as teenage college students involved in the movement. “But in our hearts, he was the light.”

Rev. Fred Taylor died June 21 in an Austell hospice, having never fully recovered from a broken hip. He was 81.

Born to a teenage mother on a Prattville, Alabama, plantation, Taylor was reared by his grandparents Mable and Douglass Taylor, who moved to Montgomery. At 11 years old, he was baptized by the Rev. Ralph Abernathy at First Baptist Church in Montgomery, and at 13, he was passing out leaflets, encouraging people to attend weekly meetings about the bus boycott.

He attended Alabama State University where, as president of student government, he urged students to join the 1965 walk from Selma to Montgomery. After graduation, he moved to Atlanta, reunited with Abernathy at West Hunter Street Baptist Church and graduated from Morehouse College’s School of Religion at the Interdenominational Theological Center. In 1969, with a master of divinity in hand, he joined the SCLC staff.

He served over the years as office manager, director of chapters and affiliates, coordinator of direct action and director of field operations. He championed labor, the abolition of the death penalty, environmental justice and the Black Lives Matter movement. He was beaten severely in 1980 by a Johnson County mob, and Taylor was jailed more than 27 times during his career.

Credit: AJC

“I can’t remember not knowing Rev. Taylor,” said the Rev. Shanan Jones, president of Concerned Black Clergy of Metro Atlanta, Inc. He said Taylor headed up direct action for the SCLC, “but you can’t have a ground game without strategy. He made sure the strategy connected with what the SCLC wanted to accomplish.”

Taylor could always be found at the front of a march, usually holding a bullhorn and singing songs of the movement, including “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” to rally participants. His legs had been injured during a car wreck when he was young and he walked with a limp, but he never slowed down. His courage and strength encouraged other marchers.

“Fred was definite about social justice and standing up to injustice,” said Greg Fann, pastor of Liberty International Church. “Whether it was a school board, a county commission, a city council — he would stand up and fight for the least, the less, the lost.”

Along with Dr. T. Dewitt Smith, Taylor helped found Trinity Baptist Church of metro Atlanta and served as associate pastor. “He believed social change could take place any place people were cooperative,” said Smith. “He was pragmatic in his approach but he worked for change. The spirit of God worked in him to see where justice could be obtained.”

Brenda Davenport was one of the younger SCLC staff members, serving as the director of youth. She became friends with Taylor and they worked together on many issues. “Fred taught us patience, he taught us to be firm, to pray about everything,” she says. “If you are doing something you’re supposed to be doing, a way will be made for you. He’d walk the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery with a bullhorn and a handkerchief, never letting that limp stop him.”

His 2007 retirement didn’t slow him. He was an advocate during the Black Lives Matter movement, he worked to get out the vote, led Bible study at the Legacy of Vine City Senior Residential Facility and volunteered with Georgia STAND-UP and the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda. He received multiple awards for his work, including the A. Phillip Randolph Award from the Atlanta Labor Council, the SCLC Rosa Parks Direct Action Award, and the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus Volunteer of the Year Award.

The Rev. Fred Taylor is survived by his daughter Vonya Taylor, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. In his honor, there will be a march July 11 at 6 p.m. from SCLC headquarters, at 320 Auburn Ave. NE, to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s grave site and to Ebenezer Baptist Church, where his body will lie in repose. The funeral will be July 12 at 11 a.m. at West Hunter Street Baptist Church, 1040 Ralph David Abernathy Blvd. SW, Atlanta.

Fred Taylor began civil rights work as a child (2024)
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