Posted by William Nunnelley on 2001-05-21

Samford University will confer honorary doctorates on retired pastors John T. Porter and Earl Stallings--who led Birmingham churches during the height of the civil rights movement--during Commencement Saturday, May 26.

Rev. Porter, Pastor Emeritus at Sixth Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham, will receive an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree. He was pastor of Sixth Avenue from 1961 until his retirement in 1999.

Rev. Stallings, former director of Christian Social Ministries for Arizona Baptists, will receive the Doctor of Humane Letters degree. He served as pastor of four Southern Baptist churches during 1947-1977, including a four-year tenure (1961-1965) at First Baptist Church of Birmingham.

Porter and Stallings shared the belief that segregation was wrong and must end, but they witnessed the civil rights struggle in early-1960s Birmingham from vastly differing circumstances.

Porter was a leader in the Birmingham civil rights movement from his pulpit at Sixth Avenue Baptist, a black church.

Stallings, meanwhile, was pastor of one of Birmingham's leading white churches. In April of 1963, while other white churches were turning black visitors away, Stallings welcomed them. This dismayed segregationists in his congregation, who increasingly pressured Stallings to discontinue such openness.

Stallings was one of eight white Birmingham ministers to whom Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" was addressed. The other ministers--like Stallings--believed segregation was wrong and should be ended, but all eight disagreed with King's tactic of street demonstrations to bring about change. King's letter eloquently explained why blacks could wait no longer to demand equality.

Stallings was the only one of the eight pastors mentioned by name in the letter. King commended him for allowing black visitors to worship at First Baptist on an unsegregated basis.

By 1965, Stallings faced such pressure from his congregation that he resigned to accept the pastorate of First Baptist Church of Marietta, Ga., where he served for 12 years.

Porter is a graduate of Alabama State University who holds a Master of Divinity degree from Morehouse College. He was a Merrill Fellow at Harvard University during 1993.

A community leader, Porter serves as the boards of Samford, Alabama Power, Leadership Birmingham, Citizen's Federal Savings Bank and other organizations. He was pastor of First Institutional Baptist Church in Detroit, Mich., before coming to Sixth Avenue. He holds honorary doctorates from Miles College and Daniel Payne College.

Stallings is a graduate of Carson-Newman College and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has done special studies at Yale University and Cambridge University. Now residing in Sun City West, Ariz., Stallings was pastor of Ridgedale Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tenn., and First Baptist Church of Ocala, Fla., before accepting his Birmingham pastorate. A denominational leader, he was president of the Florida Baptist Convention in 1956-57 and a member of the Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission during 1956-61, serving as chair of the "Baptist Hour" radio program.


Samford is a leading Christian university offering undergraduate programs grounded in the liberal arts with an array of nationally recognized graduate and professional schools. Founded in 1841, Samford is the 87th-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Samford enrolls 5,791 students from 49 states, Puerto Rico and 16 countries in its 10 academic schools: arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health. Samford fields 17 athletic teams that compete in the tradition-rich Southern Conference and ranks 6th nationally for its Graduation Success Rate among all NCAA Division I schools.