As someone who was greatly influenced by Martin Luther King in his early days at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, John T. Porter served as one of several key pastoral contacts for the Birmingham Campaign.
Porter was born on 4 April 1931, in Birmingham, Alabama. He earned a BS from Alabama State College in 1955 and his BD from Morehouse College in 1958. While a student, he served as King’s pulpit assistant at Dexter from 1954 to 1955. Porter remembered King’s mentorship fondly, remarking: “He was a tremendous inspiration to me during his first year in the pastorate” (Porter, 10 August 1990). After Porter’s departure from Dexter, King wrote, “We miss you a great deal here at Dexter,” and recalled “the devoted service that you rendered to our church while you were here” (King, 15 July 1955).
After receiving his divinity degree from Morehouse College in 1958, Porter served as a pastor at Detroit’s First Baptist Institutional Church before being called to Sixth Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham in December 1962. King preached at Porter’s installation service at Sixth Avenue, calling Porter an “eloquent prophet,” suited to “this great and challenging city” (King, 9 December 1962).
In addition to opening his church for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in April 1963, he also played an active role in the nonviolent campaign to desegregate Birmingham. Porter disobeyed the Alabama injunction against mass demonstrations, and was jailed two days after King for marching on 14 April, Easter Sunday. A statue now standing in Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park, the site of many of the demonstrations, commemorates his Easter arrest with ministers Nelson H. Smith and A. D. King. Although Porter was an avid supporter and participant in the Birmingham Campaign, he opposed James Bevel’s plan to have children march in demonstrations.
Porter served as pastor of Sixth Avenue Baptist Church until 2000, helping the church grow into one of the state’s largest, while also serving in the Alabama legislature from 1974 to 1989. He died on 15 February 2006.