In 1954 R. D. Nesbitt recruited Martin Luther King, Jr., to become the pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Nesbitt admired King, observing, “His major strength—in my way of thinking—was his ability to get along with people and his ability to sell himself to individuals. And he did this beautifully” (Nesbitt, 24 January 1972).
Nesbitt was born in Montgomery, Alabama, on 22 November 1908. He was the 12th of 14 children. He received a degree from Virginia Union University in 1928, and went on to work for the Pilgrim Health and Life Insurance Company of Augusta, Georgia, where he was employed for 35 years. Nesbitt was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and was active in many other civic organizations.
Nesbitt was Dexter’s clerk for 35 years, and served terms as chairman of the deacon board, as well as treasurer. Nesbitt was also chairman of Dexter’s pulpit selection committee. It was Nesbitt who found Dexter’s two previous pastors, Alfred Charles Livingston Arbouin and Vernon Johns, neither of whom had satisfied Dexter’s officials.
In his search for a pastor to replace Johns, Nesbitt heard about King while traveling in Atlanta. Meeting King at the house of King, Sr., Nesbitt convinced him to preach a trial sermon at Dexter on 17 January 1954. Recalling his first impression of King, Nesbitt said, “He was a very unassuming young man, very humble, and he had a very easy flow of expression” (Jarrett, “A Quiet Deacon”). Dexter’s congregation immediately liked the young reverend, but several weeks later King told Nesbitt he was still considering other job options. After further negotiations, Nesbitt persuaded King to accept the call.
Nesbitt served on the executive board of the Montgomery Improvement Association, for which he also served as treasurer. He attributed the success of the Montgomery bus boycott to the ministers: “The results of the active participation and leadership exemplified by our ministers—whom blacks love more than they do any other personalities—provided the turning point in the movement,” he recalled (Jarrett, “A Quiet Deacon”).
In 1959 King informed Nesbitt of his plans to resign from Dexter and return to Atlanta. The following year, King was tried for perjury on his 1956 Alabama state tax return (see State of Alabama v. M. L. King, Jr.). King’s defense team put Nesbitt on the stand, who informed the jury that King had fiercely resisted salary increases offered by the Dexter trustees. King was acquitted.
Nesbitt continued his work with the MIA, writing to supporters in June 1961, seeking money to support the freedom riders as they journeyed through Montgomery. He received a number of honors, such as the Young Men’s Christian Association Man of the Year Award in 1987, and the Montgomery Bar Association Liberty Bell Award in 1988.
Branch, Parting the Waters, 1988.
Vernon Jarrett, “A Quiet Deacon Unites Black Struggle,” Chicago Tribune, 2 December 1975.
King to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, 14 April 1954, in Papers 2:260.
King to Pulpit Committee, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, 10 March 1954, in Papers 2:258–259.
Nesbitt, Interview by Judy Barton, 24 January 1972, MLK/OH-GAMK.
Nesbitt and T. H. Randall to King, 7 March 1954, in Papers 2:256.