In his memoir, Stride Toward Freedom, Martin Luther King described Solomon Seay as one of the few African American clergymen who, in the years before the Montgomery bus boycott, denounced injustice and encouraged blacks to have greater confidence in themselves. Seay observed King’s unique contribution to the movement, stating: “He’s a Ph.D. with common sense and humility, and not many people have both” (Ferron, 1 March 1956).
Seay was born 25 January 1899, in Macon County, Alabama, to Hagger Warren Seay and Isaac Seay, a railroad tie cutter. He studied at Alabama State College and Talladega College, and began his ministry in 1916. Seay preached at several AME Zion churches in the South before becoming pastor at Mount Zion AME Zion Church in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1947.
As one of the central pastors working to sustain the Montgomery bus boycott, Seay served on the executive board and the negotiating committee of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). He believed in social change through nonviolence grounded in Christian principles, proclaiming at one mass meeting that “with love in our hearts and God on our side, there are no forces in hell or on earth that can mow us down” (Ferron, 1 March 1956). He called the MIA his “dream organization—one that would really champion the cause of the forgotten masses of our group,” and wrote in a letter to MIA board members, “We have, voluntarily or involuntarily, been catapulted into a position of responsibility in the world’s struggle for human rights and justice” (Seay, 2 April 1958; Seay, 1957).
Seay continued his involvement in civil rights issues after the boycott came to an end. In 1961 Seay’s house served as a safe haven for freedom riders beaten by violent mobs in Montgomery. Seay was also one of four pastors sued for libel in the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan case. The subsequent trial continued for years before the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled in the pastors’ favor in 1964.
In 1962 Seay was elected MIA president, after King and Ralph Abernathy left Montgomery for Atlanta to be closer to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In a statement at the time of his election, Seay declared: “‘I have come this far by faith.’ Faith in God; faith in the hidden goodness of mankind, and faith in my own outlook on life” (Seay, 25 January 1962). During King’s imprisonment in Albany, Georgia, Seay wrote to him that he was “as ever with Martin with all that I have” (Seay, 1 August 1962).
In 1972 Seay moved to southern Alabama, where he served as presiding Elder of the Greenville District of the AME Zion church. He retired from the ministry in 1982. His autobiography, I Was There by the Grace of God, was published posthumously in 1990.
Donald T. Ferron, Notes on MIA Executive Board Meeting, 30 January 1956, in Papers 3:109–112.
Donald T. Ferron, Notes on MIA Mass Meeting at Hutchinson Street Baptist Church, 1 March 1956, in Papers 3:150–151.
King, Stride Toward Freedom, 1958.
Manis, A Fire You Can’t Put Out, 1999.
Seay, I Was There by the Grace of God, 1990.
Seay, “My Faith in the Possibility of Peaceful Progress in Montgomery,” 25 January 1962, HG-GAMK.
Seay to King, 1 August 1962, MLKJP-GAMK.
Seay to Members of the MIA Board, 2 April 1958, RGP.
Seay to Members of the MIA Executive Board, 1957, MLKP-MBU.