As a boy growing up in Wheeler, Alabama,in the 1940s, Charles Elliott Jr. experienced first-hand the hostility and ugliness of a racist society.
“I had a hate simmering in my heart for white people because of the way I was treated. It was a very hurting and frustrating thing,” Elliott said of his childhood in the Deep South.
“It was nothing to see a black man hanging in a tree, just like you would hang rabbits. That’s just the way it was. Nothing would be done — hangings, raping, murdering, beatings, dogs biting you, there was no law for us blacks.”
“This is not something I read about, but something I had to live with,” he said.
Those formative years as the son of a sharecropper helped shape the life of the Rev. Elliott, who has been a pastor at the King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church in Louisville since 1961.
Over the past 58 years, Elliott’s life has been focused on seeking justice and trusting God. He proved himself to be a resourceful provocateur as a local civil rights leader and was a confidant of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
He counseled Louisville’s own Muhammad Ali; battled civic and business leaders over jobs, open housing, working conditions and equal rights; and witnessed seminal events in the life of our country.
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His life as a black man of faith is a road map of 20th century American history. And it all started with his experiences as a boy, which he said were the driving force behind and motivation for his long connection to social justice and activism.
“They named (my hometown) after Joe Wheeler. He was the man. There was even a train named after him,” he said of the man who owned the property where his family were sharecroppers. Wheeler was a highly segregated Southern town, but “I just thought that was the way life was.”
As a young boy, he attended a one-room schoolhouse where the teacher had a bible and some hickory switches in the corner. “If you made it to sixth grade, you’d go on to junior high. I went there, but I couldn’t go to school after junior high. I had to plow Mr. Wheeler’s crop.”
One morning, he recalls, he got up at 4 a.m., hooked the mules up to a wagon and set out on his way to take his cotton to the gin. “They crank up the gin at 7 a.m. and I’m still here asleep,” he said, first in line. “I woke up when a big white man said to me, ‘What are you doing with your wagon in front of us white people?'”
“I had to pull my wagon out and go all the way back past all the tractors and wagons to the end of the line,” he said. “Now it’s 4 p.m. in the evening before my cotton is ginned.”
Elliott constantly struggled with the unfairness he endured simply for being black.
“I’m out plowing because you plowed from sun up to sundown. Joe Wheeler’s son, John, got his motorcycle and came by and threw dust up on me. He kept circling and throwing dust on me,” he said. But he didn’t let Wheeler’s son phase him.
“Finally, he hit too much sand and that motorcycle threw him into a tree and broke his back,” he said.
Years later, from the seat of his wheelchair, John Wheeler would apologize to Elliott for all the pain he caused himin their youth.
Perhaps it was karma. Perhaps not. “From that moment I decided that I was going to work to get things changed in regards to segregation,” Elliot recalled.
Faith and the church have always been central to his life. As a boy, he asked his mother, “Momma, are there two Gods? Is there one for the blacks and one for the whites?”
“I said, ‘Why is it that the white church has electric lights and running water and our little church don’t have no lights, running water, no inside restrooms?'”
“She said, ‘Baby someday that’s going to change. There are going to be some of your white brothers and sisters to help you change it.’”
But it would take years from when Elliott first posed that question to his mother to when he felt the calling to make that change.
He married his wife, Dorothy, in 1952 and knew he wanted a better life for them, so he headed north to Louisville, where his uncle William “Sweet” Elliott was already living.
“Jobs were very hard to find in Louisville, so I prayed and told God, ‘My wife is in Alabama, she’s pregnant with my first child, I need a job.’ The Lord told me to get a bag and a broom. I looked up and saw smoke and I start walking with the bag and broom from 34th and Stratton all the way to Third Street, following the smoke,” he said.
At the time, the Kentucky Foundry made molds, and Elliott just started sweeping and cleaning up in front of the office. “The owner said, ‘Send this boy down there and work him,'” he recalled. “I cleaned up so you could almost eat off the ground. I wouldn’t even stop for lunch, so glad to have the work.”
Elliott’s hard work paid off, and he called his wife to tell her the good news.
“I’m going to rent an apartment and come and get you!” he said he told her.
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Elliott quickly rose to foreman at the Kentucky Foundry, but even with a solid job and the start to a new life out of the Deep South, Louisville wasn’t without its share of segregation and problems.
“Me and my wife went down on Fourth Street on her birthday to go to the theater. I walked up to ask for a ticket and the girl didn’t bite her tongue. … ‘We don’t sell n—-s tickets,'” he recalled her saying.
“I was so embarrassed. It hurt me so bad because this was my wife’s birthday.”
That interaction changed Elliott’s attitude, turning him bitter, but motivating him to work for societal change through the civil rights movementin Louisville.
Two years after his arrival, racial tensions were festering in Louisville. In 1954, Carl and Anne Braden helped a black man, Andrew Wade, purchase a home for his family in an all-white neighborhood. The house was later bombed, and Carl Braden was put on trial for sedition for attempting racial integration, according to previous reports from The Courier Journal.
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In the midst of his increasing involvement with the growing movement, Elliott heard the persistent call of the Lord to preach.
“I was a deacon at Bethel Baptist Church in Louisville, but I didn’t want to preach. Every day I could hear God telling me that I’ve got to preach,” he said. But Elliott still wasn’t sure that was his true calling.
Then in 1959, his mother was in the hospital and his brother’s appendix burst on him.
“I told God, ‘Lord if you save my momma and let me bring my brother home, I will announce my calling.’”
Elliott left Louisville and headed south to Alabama to visit his ailing family.
“I got home, and Momma was already out of the hospital and cooking some chicken. I got my brother out of the hospital, too,” he said.
As he promised, “I went to church and announced my calling. God showed me the sign.”
His transition to religion was a lifetime in the making, and, in 1961, Elliott took the helm as pastor of King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church “to wild success,” he said.
“In less than two months, I couldn’t put all the people in the church. That’s how God blessed me,” Elliott said.
In the early 1960s, a young man named Cassius Clay, who later would become known as Muhammad Ali,could be found in attendance at King Solomon. Elliott said the Clays were members of the church and “his daddy painted our church murals and later my momma babysat his daughter.”
As a young boxer, “Ali wanted me to pray for him before every fight. He signed the contract to fight Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship and said, ‘Man, I don’t want to fight that man, he’s going to kill me,’” Elliott recalled.
in Ali’s time of strife, Elliott sought guidance for the boxer in his faith.
“I said, ‘David went up against a giant, with nothing but a slingshot and some little stones. If you go in the name of the Lord, God will give you a victory.”
And Ali did just that, but in his own way.
“Ali gets on TV calling Liston a bear and how ugly he is and made Liston so mad that he came in the ring wanting to kill him. Ali danced and dodged him and Liston lost control of what he was doing. Ali wore him down and Liston gave up,” he said. “He used his mouth and strategy. God gave him that.”
Elliott left his foundry job in 1962 so he could fight for equality full time from the pulpit as well as in the streets.
Around the same time, General Electric’s Appliance Park began hiring black residents and National Auto Sales was selling cars to them for $100 down.
“But the cars were no good. They sold one of my members a car and the motor blew,” he said.”
“I got on WLOU radio and told everybody that bought a car from National Auto Sales to bring them back and park them right in front of the business,” he said.
“The owner walked out, and I said, ‘You’re selling us cars that are worn out because we are poor and black.’ He said, ‘Tell that man to pick out whatever car he wants and from here on, we’ll have the cars examined,'” Elliot said.
As the civil rights movement grew in size and urgency, Elliott became more active in the cause, traveling throughout the South to marches and protests.
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Alabama was ground zero in the fight to end discrimination, and Elliott traveled home to march from Selma to Montgomery.
“We called the first Selma march Bloody Sunday (and) we had serious problems. The state and local cops were lined up and they stopped us and beat us. Dr. Martin Luther King said, ‘Just keep moving.’ Finally, we had to give up. A lot of us were put in wagons and taken to jail.”
Elliott can still point to a knot on his back, the result of a dog bite during a march in Birmingham.
“The police would urge the dogs to attack. We didn’t have the government with us, they were against us,” he said. “We didn’t have nobody but God.”
Back in Louisville, as the civil rights movement was beginning to heat up in the mid-’60s, King would come to Louisville to participate in open housing demonstrations.
“Dr. King came and marched with us in the south end. There was a line of white people with sticks and rocks and things,” Elliott recalled.
“Dr. King said, ‘Brethren we’re going to have to get out of this car and meet our brothers and sisters, we do not want to walk with fear,'” he said.
But “My knees were knocking. This boy about 12 or 13 took a rock and hit Dr. King in the jaw. Dr. King bent down and got that rock and held it in front of them and began talking about love and what he was going to build on that rock,” Elliott said.
That statement, Elliot said, emphasized what Jesus said, “‘If I be lifted up, I’ll draw all men unto me.’ That’s what Dr. King would do.”
King had a way to be calm in the face of danger, but Elliott said the last time he spoke to the civil rights leader, he had a sense of finality.
“The hardest thing for us was that Dr. King knew while he was in Memphis, that he probably wouldn’t get back home. He told all of us while we were sitting in the hotel room, ‘I really don’t want to go to this rally. I got a feeling that I won’t make it back. I want you all to keep the movement going because it will eventually be victorious with white and black walking together and working together,'” Elliott recalled King saying.
King’s assassination in 1968 was a turning point for Elliott in how he preached to his congregation.
“I decided I was going to preach Jesus and love,” he said. “Dr. King told us that hate hurts the hater. It doesn’t hurt the people you hate.”
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The Rev. Charles Elliott has been fighting for civil rights for more than half a century and has worked alongside leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.
Sam Upshaw Jr., Louisville Courier Journal
Apart from his role in the civil rights movement, Elliott has been instrumental in the formation of multiple charitable organiza including the Christian Benevolent Association, Feed the People, Youth Motivation and Development, Jesus and a Job and most recently, the SiliconCafé, which introduces children to the world of technology.
Mayor Greg Fischer presented Elliott with the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Award in 2018, and he was inducted into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame in 2012.
His legacy, and faith, is lasting.
“Rev. Elliott has been a long-term advocate for civil rights and equal justice. He was active in the demonstrations for open housing and when the disturbances broke out in 1968, he was very much involved with efforts to calm the community,” Louisville NAACP President Raoul Cunningham said.
“His passion for equal justice has continued through the years. As we look back in those early days, Rev. Elliott has been blessed with longevity where Rev. A.D. Williams King, Rev. Leo Lesser, Georgia Powers and others have all left us.”
Elliott knows that time has been on his side.
“I’m 85 years old. I’m in the city limits of heaven. My life has been almost radical, but I was following Christ’s examples. Jesus gave us a law that works: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
“I tried to practice that in spite of having a terrible feeling about white people and how they treated me,” he said.
But “God blessed me to find forgiveness and I found that I could not be forgiven if I don’t forgive you.”
“I Iove people, man,” he said with a smile. “That’s been my life.”
Reach Pat McDonogh at firstname.lastname@example.org.