James Earl Stallings (born March 20, 1916 in Durham, North Carolina; died February 23, 2006 in Lakeland, Florida) was the pastor of First Baptist Church of Birmingham from 1961 to 1965, leading the congregation through the climactic events of the Birmingham campaign during the Civil Rights Movement.
Stallings grew up in North Carolina and Tennessee. He dropped out of school at age sixteen to support his brothers and sisters after the death of their mother during the Great Depression. He returned to high school at Harrison Chilhowee Academy in Seymour, Tennessee at age 21 and graduated two years later. He enrolled at Carson–Newman College in Jefferson City, Tennessee, majoring in history. He went on to complete a master of theology at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
Meanwhile, Stallings began preaching in 1940 as part-time student pastor of Buffalo Grove Baptist Church and Dumplin Creek Baptist Church in Jefferson City. He served as full time pastor of Ridgedale Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In 1951 he became pastor of the First Baptist Church of Ocala, Florida and was elected president of the Florida Baptist Convention for 1956-57. He also oversaw the "Baptist Hour" radio program on behalf of the Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission from 1956-61.
In 1962 Stallings moved to Birmingham to become pastor of First Baptist. While here, Stallings took a leadership role in efforts by local clergy to urge moderation as tensions mounted between Civil Rights activists and entrenched segregationists in Birmingham. Eight years earlier, after the U.S. Supreme Court made its ruling against "separate but equal" accommodations in Brown v. Board of Education, First Baptist adopted a policy that none would be denied the right to worship. Stallings was there to welcome the church's first African-American visitors, including activist Andrew Young, who attended services peacefully on Easter Sunday, 1963. Stallings warmly received those visitors and asked them to "come again". His attitude was not universally shared, and the presence of black worshipers led a large number of First Baptist's members to leave the congregation in protest.
In anticipation of the forced integration of public schools, Stallings and other members of the "Reconciliation Committee" co-authored "An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense", which was published in newspapers statewide in January 1963. That document appealed to peaceful, democratic methods for addressing injustices and championed equal protection under the law. As the organized Birmingham Campaign of demonstrations became imminent in the spring, he and seven other religious leaders published another open letter, "A Call For Unity". That document addressed itself specifically to the city's black residents, entreating them to pursue negotiations locally rather than to join with "outsiders" seeking to defy law and order. It was that letter that Martin Luther King, Jr, arrested for "parading without a permit", responded to in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail", and therein laid out his moral justification for peaceful demonstrations. In the letter, King singled out Stallings to credit him for allowing black worshipers to be seated at Sunday services. First Baptist's efforts toward integration never progressed much further, though. In 1970, five years after Stallings' departure, a large segment of the church broke away to establish the Baptist Church of the Covenant when First Baptist voted not to accept the membership of two African Americans.
In 1965 Stallings left to accept the call to lead First Baptist Church of Marietta, Georgia. He left there in 1977 to work for the Southern Baptist Convention's Home Mission Board in Sun City West, Arizona. He retired to Lakeland, Florida and avoiding discussing his troubling pastorate in Birmingham until after his wife's death in 2001. He was married for 64 years to the former Ruth Langston McMahon.
Stallings died in 2006 and was survived by his son, Jim, and two grandchildren.
|Pastor of First Baptist Church of Birmingham
- Bass, S. Jonathan (2001) Blessed Are The Peacemakers: Martin Luther King, Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the "Letter from Birmingham Jail". Baton Rouge: LSU Press. ISBN 0807126551
- Saxon, Wolfgang (March 4, 2006) "Rev. Earl Stallings, 89, Pastor Praised by Jailed Dr. King, Dies." The New York Times