Shortly before the Montgomery bus boycott ended, prominent Atlanta minister William Holmes Borders sent an encouraging letter to Martin Luther King, writing, “May God continue to bless you that you may reach higher heights. Your future is unlimited.” He continued, “There is no position in any church, religious body, University … which you could not fill” (Papers 3:485).
Born in Macon, Georgia, Borders was a third-generation minister. He earned his BA (1929) from Morehouse College, his BD (1932) from Garrett Theological Seminary, and his MA from Northwestern University in 1936. The following year Borders became pastor of Atlanta’s Wheat Street Baptist Church, a few blocks away from his rival, Martin Luther King, Sr., at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Under his leadership, which spanned five decades, the church developed a complex of businesses, housing, and nonprofit organizations. His sermons were broadcast on the radio from the early 1940s until 1972. He published a compilation of his early sermons, Seven Minutes at the ‘Mike’ in the Deep South, in 1949.
Borders was a leader in many of Atlanta’s civil rights campaigns. He led voter registration efforts in the 1930s and, in 1947, was instrumental in the hiring of Atlanta’s first black police officers. In December 1956, at the Montgomery Improvement Association’s first Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change, Borders spoke on the “Social Aspects of the Christian Gospel.” The following year Borders and five other ministers, leaders of the Triple L Movement (Love, Law, and Liberation), were arrested for occupying bus seats reserved for whites and brought a test case against Georgia’s segregation laws. The action resulted in a 1959 court decision striking down the law and integrating Atlanta’s public transit system. Borders later chaired the Student-Adult Liaison Committee, which negotiated the desegregation of Atlanta’s lunch counters in 1961. Upon Borders’ death, congressional representative and civil rights activist John Lewis remarked, “We are deeply indebted to this soldier of the cross” (Hardie, “Words, Deeds”).