Like many churches in the African American community, Big Bethel has taken on a social mission over its years. In 1879, the basement of the church became home to Gate City Colored School, the first public school for African Americans in Atlanta. Morris Brown College also held classes in the church’s basement when it began in 1885. After the Civil War, the church served as an employment bureau for female domestic laborers.
During the Progressive Era, women in the Bethel congregation formed the Daughters of Bethel Benevolent Society, which W.E.B. DuBois cited as a forerunner in mutual aid. The church was active during the Civil Rights Movement, hosting a weekly radio broadcast and providing space for civil rights rallies. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. appeared at Big Bethel for a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) rally shortly after the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1957. During the 1970s, Big Bethel opened its own low-income housing complex.
Bethel A.M.E. has hosted a number of notable speakers, including Booker T. Washington, President William Howard Taft, Mary McLeod Bethune, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., President Jimmy Carter, Nelson Mandela, and President Bill Clinton.
Architect: J. A. Lankford and Alexander Hamilton, 1922
Photo: Gene Phillips