How A Tampa Pastor Helped Birth the Civil Rights Movement

It Began in a Canoe

When a Methodist pastor in Tampa went canoeing on the Hillsborough River with a high school athlete in his congregation he never could have imagined that he was making a small contribution to a movement that would change history.

The pastor’s name was L. M. Broyles.  He was appointed to Hyde Park Methodist Episcopal Church, South, in Tampa, Florida, in 1915. He was serving there in 1919 when women got the right to vote and Hyde Park became “the first church in the Florida Conference to include women on its official board.”

James A. “Jim” Dombrowsky was a senior at Hillsborough High School, an honor roll student, editor of the school’s literary magazine, who “canoed often, finding the sport more exhilarating than competition where winning was the only aim.” His biographer says “he often went fishing and canoeing” with Rev. Broyles and “as his love of physical exertion grew, so, too, did his interest in religion.” It wasn’t long before he was teaching Sunday School so that “Methodism would encircle him for years to come.”

Incubator for the Movement

When Dombrowsky came home from serving in WWI, he “had it in his mind to do something to help people.” During one of their fishing trips, Rev. Broyles convinced him to go to the newly established Emory University.  He went on to Union Theological Seminary where he came under the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr and the “social gospel” movement.  In 1932 he was one of the founders of the Highlander Folk School imagesin Monteagle, Tennessee, which became an important incubator and training center for the civil rights movement. The first integrated workshop at Highlander was in 1944.

In 1955 a seamstress named Rosa Parks spent a week of her vacation at Highlander where she attended classes taught by Septema Clark, the “Mother of the American Civil Rights Movement.” images-1She returned to Birmingham saying that “her eyes had been opened to new possiblities of harmony between the races.”

Workshops and training sessions on nonviolence, citizenship, voting rights and social change at Highlander became a formative experience for many of the leaders of the movement including Martin Luther King, Jr., James Lawson, Andrew Young, and Medger Evans.

In 1947, Zilphia Horton, the music director at Highlander, adapted “I’ll Overcome Some Day”, a WWI era African-American hymn by C. A. Tindley, and taught it to Pete Seeger who published it as “We Shall Overcome.” It would be sung in the churches, on the streets and in the prison cells as the official anthem for the movement.

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Dr. King often said, “There is a moral arc in the universe that bends toward justice.”  The movement for freedom and justice is a part of God’s work of salvation in this world that will go on and will not be defeated.

There might have been a Martin Luther King, Jr., and a Rosa Parks, without Highlander.  There might have been Highlander without Jim Dombrowsky.  It might have all happened without a pastor who went canoeing with a teenager on the Hillsborough River.

But God has a peculiar way of using ordinary people who make their own small, unnoticed contribution toward bending the arc of justice, who plant seeds of hope in dark places, and who point the way to truth in times when lies abound.  May each of us be among them.

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

 

 

 

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7 thoughts on “How A Tampa Pastor Helped Birth the Civil Rights Movement

  1. Jim, thanks for the story. I was unaware of this part of Hyde Park’s history. Now we need a canoe trip for a few more. Peace for the journey.
    Larry

    1. Latty: Thanks. You’d also be interested to know that at Emory Dombrowsky had a connection with Pomp Colwell.

  2. Thanks Jim.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  3. Wonderful story Jim. Thank you.

  4. Thank you, Jim Harnish, for your essay on humanity’s profound connectivity of the “moral arc of justice.”

  5. Hi, Jim.

    Thank you for this interesting history of the founding of the Highlander Folk School and its importance to the civil rights movement of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. era.

    You are probably aware of another HPMC connection to the civil rights movement. Caxton Doggett succeeded Harold Buell as senior pastor at HP from 1966-1969, some of the most trying and violent days of the King years. Andrea and I were new to Tampa and HP (we joined HP soon after arriving in Tampa in late 1965), and I was not aware of it at the time, but I since learned that Caxton was very active as a Methodist civil rights leader in Florida, including his time at HP. According to his obituary, Caxton was reared and educated in rural Mississippi, was chaplain of the Miami chapter of the NAACP, president of the Florida Council on Human Relations, and aide to Thurgood Marshall in the notorious Groveland Boys rape case, and, as president of the Miami Chapter of the United Nations Association, received a personal letter of thanks from Eleanor Roosevelt for his advocacy of the “fledging UN.” Later, he received Charlene Kammerer, now a retired UMC Bishop, as the first female UMC pastor in the Florida Conference.

    According to the obituary, Caxton graduated from Millsaps College, then attended Yale Divinity School, where he won academic awards and praise from Richard Niebuhr, while working for the Associated Press and the New Haven Journal-Courier to pay his way through school. He preached his class graduation sermon in 1939 and again at their 50th reunion.

    You may have known Caxton. I wish I had had more time to get to know him.

    Also, I wanted to quickly mention and recommend to you a recent book by Gary Dorrien, entitled “Breaking White Supremacy; Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Black Social Gospel.” I found it to be the most interesting account of the MLK/civil rights movement I have read.

    Thank you for your great blogging! Keep it up!

    Grace and peace to you and Martha.

    Tom

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  6. Hi, Jim
    Absolutely fascinating article and perspectives on the roots of the Civil Rights movement relating contributions from local Hyde Park people and in particular the Appalachian-centered Highlander Folk school in New Market, Tennessee…did not know any of this…thank you…I further researched your article, Jim and found that Zilphia Horton (from Wisconsin), who adapted the “I’ll Overcome Some Day in 1947 (found you tube clip of her singing this!!!) was married to Myles Horton, co-founder of the school, who had simple beginnings as a poor white man from west Tennessee. His strong leadership at the school and his steadfast adherence to social justice principles, especially integration (when it was not popular) earned him the title “The Father of the Civil Rights Movement”…..Ordinary unsung people doing GREAT things…WOW…you just can’t make this up….Thank you so much for sharing, Jim.

    Peace, Tom

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