New Bethel Baptist Church

New Bethel Baptist Church

Linwood at West Philadelphia in Detroit

There are two reasons for the historical significance of this west side church: the accomplishments of its founder, the Reverend Clarence LeVaughn Franklin, and the violent New Bethel incident of March 29, 1969.

Reverend Franklin was born in Mississippi in 1915, trained for the ministry in Memphis and became pastor of a large Baptist church there in the late 1930s, then moved to a church in Buffalo and, in 1950, moved to very prosperous Detroit where he founded New Bethel. He developed a distinctive style of preaching that became a model for African American Baptist ministers. Indeed, CDs of his sermons are still widely available for use in training preachers. In the mid-1950s, Reverend Franklin preached at churches throughout the nation, accompanied by a group of Gospel singers that included his daughter Aretha, the soon to be famous star of Barry Gorky's Motown empire. The financial success of his tours placed Reverend Franklin securely into Detroit's emerging black middle class.

In the early 1960s, blacks were well represented in the governmental structure of Detroit. The UAW and the Michigan Democratic Party were committed to equal racial opportunities and the city's chapter of the NAACP was the nation's largest and most economically secure, always ready to litigate racial issues. But progress was slow and a new generation of younger blacks demanded a much more rapid dismantling of the traditional racial hierarchy. Several more militant groups developed in Detroit in the early 1960s challenging the dominant position of the NAACP including GOAL (Group for the Advancement of Leadership), UHURU (founded by Wayne State students who used this Swahili word for their organization); the Detroit chapter of SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) and RAM (Revolutionary Action Movement). They demanded black control of the institutions that determined the fate of Detroit's African Americans. Several of their leaders, especially Robert F. Williams of RAM and the SNCC leaders advocated using violence, if necessary, to secure black control of Detroit.

Reverend Franklin, with the cooperation of Reverend Clague of the Shrine of the Black Madonna, also located on Linwood, held an organizational meeting of these black power groups at New Bethel in May, 1963. Their first action reflected the controversy between blacks that wished to use traditional means to effect racial change and those who demanded immediate changes. Reverend Franklin invited Dr. Martin Luther King to Detroit for a "Walk to Freedom." This idea was quickly endorsed and supported by the UAW. On June 23, 1964, a massive march involving thousands took place on Woodward. Most pictures show Revered Franklin, Reverend King and Walter Reuther leading the countless marchers. Reverend King gave an impressive speech that, with only minor changes, became the "I Have a Dream Speech" delivered two months later at the Lincoln Memorial—undoubtedly the most remember and cited speech delivered by an American in the last half of the last century. The success of the Detroit march led the UAW to provide much of the financial support and organizational skills need for the August 28 march in Washington. 1963 was the final year in which traditional civil rights organizations, the rather moderate supporters of Dr. King, and the increasingly militant black groups effectively cooperated.

Militant blacks in Detroit founded the Republic of New Africa (RNA) in 1968—eight months after the devastating 1967 riot. RNA leaders demanded that the federal government give blacks five states—Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina—and pay billions in reparations to compensate for slavery. They were frequently seen as advocating that blacks use violence to get these demands if the government resisted.

On March 29, 1969, 200 to 300 members of the RNA met at New Bethel Church to celebrate the first anniversary of their organization. The meeting was adjourning about midnight when Detroit police officers Michael Czapski and Richard Worobec saw a dozen or so apparently armed men in camaflogue along Linwood. They stopped to investigate, but Officer Czapski was instantly shot to death and Officer Worobec wounded but managed to call for back up. Twenty minutes later, 50 Detroit police officers attempted to enter New Bethel. The commanding officer claimed the police were fired upon as their tried to enter the church. Once they broke down the door, the police claim they came under rifle fire from the altar and sniper fire from the loft. These claims were disputed.

The police arrested 142 inside the church, found 9 rifles, three pistols and ammunition. Reverend Franklin instantly alerted African American who had risen to positions of power: State Senator James Del Rio and Recorders Court Judge George Crockett. Judge Crockett was not certain that the Detroit police would treat these prisoners well, so he went to the lockup, and by 6 AM, established a temporary court room where he began releasing those who were arrested, either on small bonds or on personal recognizance. By noon, Judge Crockett had released many—but not all—of those arrested, including some that had tested positive for nitrate burns. Judge Crockett also criticized police procedures and thus invalidated their right to hold those arrested at New Bethel.

The incident symbolzed Detroit's racial polarization just a year and a half after the riots. The arrest of many armed RNA members and the shooting of police officers confirmed the fear of many that militant young black men in Detroit were well armed and ready to use violence to advance their own racial causes. And Judge Crockett's immediate release of those arrested confirmed the belief of some whites that if blacks controlled the justice system, they would use it to exonerate blacks accused of crimes. Judge Crockett himself became a symbol of racial conflict as many whites signed petitions demanding his ouster, while many blacks defended his unusual role in this controversy. Some years later, Judge Crockett was elected to Congress where he served several terms. Two defendants were tried in the shootings of Officers Czapski and Worobec, but there were no convictions.

Reverend Franklin never apologized for the New Bethel incident. Indeed, he said that RNA would be welcome to meet at his church again, but he would prohibit guns. Given his political actions, it is not surprising to find that he was the target of investigations. In 1967, he was charged with a failure to pay federal income tax. He pled guilty. In 1969,when returning from Mexico, Reverend Franklin was arrested for possession of marijuana, but these charges were dropped. Befitting his prosperity, Reverend Franklin lived in a large and historically interesting home near his church in the 7400 block of LaSalle. In 1979, he apparently surprised robbers who were attempting to steal valuable windows. He was shot, went into a coma and died five years later.

Architect: Unknown
Photo: Ren Farley, November, 2002

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