As executive director of the Alabama Council on Human Relations (ACHR), Robert Hughes helped organize the first negotiating session between the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and the Montgomery, Alabama, city commission. A Methodist minister who met with Martin Luther King and other ministers in the MIA on Monday mornings, Hughes saw King as someone not seeking leadership. “It was cast on him,” he wrote of King’s MIA role. He was “needed for this position” (Hughes, 24 August 1985).
Hughes was born in Gadsden, Alabama, in 1928. He received his BA from the University of Alabama in 1949, a master’s in divinity from Emory University (1952), and an MST from Boston University (1967). He became pastor of the Methodist Rockford Circuit in Alabama in 1953, but left the following year to serve as the first director of the ACHR. Through their shared interests, Hughes became friends with King, who was the first vice president of the Montgomery chapter of the ACHR. After facilitating the first meeting between the MIA and the city of Montgomery on 8 December 1955, Hughes continued to work behind the scenes to bridge the gap between the races. He occasionally gave guest sermons at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church when King was called out of town.
In 1960, as part of New York Times v. Sullivan, Hughes was called before a grand jury in Bessemer, Alabama. Refusing to turn over the records of the ACHR and expose its members to possible harassment, he spent Labor Day weekend in jail. Shortly thereafter he was assigned to missionary work in Southern Rhodesia. In 1962, he reported to King that following King’s arrest in Albany “a group of ninety Africans in a remote valley far up in the Inyanga Mountains knelt in prayer in your behalf.” He went on to ask, “Have you ever considered the power of world-wide prayer—at the same moment praying for the same thing???” (Hughes, December 1962). He remained in Southern Rhodesia until 1964, when the government declared him and his wife “prohibited immigrants” for supporting the liberation movement there, and subsequently they moved to Zambia (Dorothy Hughes, 27 October 1964).
Upon returning from Africa, Hughes became a conciliator and mediator of the U.S. Community Relations Service in 1967. He remained with the federal agency, created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, until he retired in 1994. He later served as the Pacific Northwest coordinator of the Peace with Justice program of the United Methodist Church.
Hughes, Interview by David Garrow, 24 August 1985, DJG-GEU-S.
“Hughes Punished by Church for Conscience Sake,” Christian Century (21 September 1960): 1077–1078.
Hughes to King and Coretta Scott King, December 1962, MCMLK-RWWL.
Dorothy Hughes to King, 27 October 1964, MCMLK-RWWL.
King, Stride Toward Freedom, 1958.
Morgan, A Time to Speak, 1964.