A new biography by the author Randall Jimerson examines the life and civil rights ministry of the Rev. Robert Hughes.
One evening in 1959, the Rev. Robert Hughes was sitting in his dining room at his home in Birmingham when he heard the longsome honk of a car horn coming from outside. Then he heard another horn. And another. And another.
Hughes knew immediately that it was the Ku Klux Klan.
As executive director of the Alabama Council on Human Relations, Hughes promoted racial equality and brought Black and white leaders together for dialogue. But the Klan hated both Hughes and his work, and they aimed to send a clear message: Stop or else.
Hughes walked into his living room, and, from the window, he saw a line of cars and trucks in front of his house, headlights on and horns blaring. He watched as several men in white Klan robes and hoods ambled into his front yard and planted a five-foot tall wooden cross into the ground. Then they set it on fire.
Hughes walked out of his front door into his yard, grabbed a garden hose, and, as the crowd watched, sprayed down the blazing cross.
But instead of hiding inside his home, Hughes walked out of his front door into his yard, grabbed a garden hose, and, as the crowd watched, sprayed down the blazing cross.
Alone. Unafraid. Defiant.
In 1959, members of the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in front of Hughes’s home in Birmingham. (Courtesy of Dorothy S. Hughes)
Courage in the Face of Fire
Randall Jimerson, author of a newly published biography To Do Justice: The Civil Rights Ministry of Reverend Robert E. Hughes, opens his book with that harrowing event from Hughes’s life.
“One of the first things I had heard about Bob Hughes, long before I ever met him, was that he had been persecuted by having a cross burned in front of his yard,” Jimerson says. “I thought it was a dramatic story showing his courage in the face of that attack by the Klan.”
Jimerson says he had admired Hughes for many years. Jimerson’s father, the Rev. Norman “Jim” Jimerson, told him stories about Hughes being ostracized from his community because of his support for civil rights. (As it turned out, Jimerson’s father later succeeded Hughes as executive director of the Alabama Council on Human Relations.)
Rand Jimerson says Hughes’s life of service inspired him to title the book after the Old Testament scripture Micah 6:8 that says, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
“It seemed to me that Hughes is an important part of the civil rights history that’s often overlooked,” Jimerson says.
Starting a Civil Rights Ministry
Robert Hughes, the son of a physician, grew up in Gadsden, Ala., and graduated from the University of Alabama in 1949 with a degree in political science. He was an active member of the Methodist church and deeply devout, but he first dreamed of a career in the Foreign Service.
While attending a week-long Methodist ashram, however, Hughes met Dr. E. Stanley Jones, who had been very involved in Christian ministry in India, where he became acquainted with Mahatma Gandhi. “Dr. Jones passed on lessons about nonviolent resistance and brotherhood of all men,” Jimerson says, “and that week he convinced Hughes to pursue a career in ministry, just as Hughes’s older brother, Preston, had done.”
So Hughes earned master’s degrees from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University and the Boston University School of Theology. Afterward, he landed his first job in 1953 pastoring a small Methodist church in Rockford, Ala.
Robert and Dottie Hughes in 1952 at Emory University, where he attended seminary. (Courtesy of Dorothy S. Hughes)
“There were only two ministers in Rockford at the time—Hughes and a Baptist minister,” Jimerson says. “When the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision was imminent, they talked to each other and decided that they would support the decision when it came down.”
They called a meeting of other ministers in the region, hoping that they, too, would be willing to help their congregants process the Court decision and preach peace and equality from their pulpits as school integration began. But the other ministers showed little interest, Jimerson says.
Hughes was met with resistance, with church members telling him civil rights was not something a minister should get involved in.
“Hughes recognized, however, that this was an important turning point for promoting the values that he believed were important in Christian ministry,” he says. “And so he began occasionally mentioning civil rights issues and the need for treating people with dignity and equality [in his sermons].”
But Hughes was met with resistance, with church members telling him civil rights was not something a minister should get involved in, Jimerson says.
Joining Forces with Dr. King
The following year, Hughes got a job offer from the Southern Regional Council (SRC), a justice-promoting organization based in Atlanta with state offices in many of the former Confederate states as well as a few others. The SRC wanted Hughes to build an Alabama division of the Southern Regional Council in Montgomery and become its first executive director, Jimerson says.
“He was encouraged to do so by a couple of his fellow ministers who supported the ideals of Southern Regional Council for equality and integration, but racial equality primarily. I think he felt that was his calling.
“His wife, Dottie, when I talked with her a few years ago, recounted that it seemed as though he had a stronger ability to work behind the scenes than to be a church minister preaching sermons. The idea of developing relationships between the racial groups in Alabama was more in his way of thinking and liking; it was more appealing to him.”
Hughes with his wife Dottie and their four daughters during their time in Birmingham, where he served as director of the Alabama Council on Human Relations.
Within months, the division was renamed the Alabama Council on Human Relations.
While working in Montgomery, Hughes met the new pastor of the nearby Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Martin Luther King, Jr.
“They became very close friends,” Jimerson says, “and Hughes asked Dr. King to take the position of vice chairman of the Alabama Council. He told Dr. King that if he took the position, he would have a focal point in a place where he could become a leader in promoting civil rights and social justice issues.”
Hughes became a focal point for journalists from around the country who were coming to Montgomery to understand what was going on in the bus boycott.
Their relationship and the Council became key when they and other individuals tried to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the citywide Montgomery Bus Boycott, which began in 1955 after police arrested Rosa Parks, a fellow member of the Alabama Council on Human Relations, after she refused to give up her seat to another rider who was white. Fed up with racially segregated buses, Black leaders organized a bus boycott and Blacks refused to ride the city buses unless the city ended segregated seating. The white city leaders rejected the protesters’ demands, and Blacks boycotted the buses for nearly a year.
“Hughes became a focal point for journalists from around the country who were coming to Montgomery to understand what was going on in the bus boycott; he was able to direct them to people like Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy, Rosa Parks and others involved in the movement, and he became a valuable conduit for journalists coming to see what was going on,” Jimerson says.
As a young man, Robert Hughes chose a career in ministry. But after a few years in the pulpit, he realized that his mission was to bring Blacks and whites together during Jim Crow as the executive director of the Alabama Council on Human Relations. (Courtesy of Dorothy S. Hughes)
Bishop Ralph Dodge (left) the man who invited Hughes to do missionary work in Southern Rhodesia, christened Hughes’s daughter Ginny. (Courtesy of Dorothy S. Hughes)
Harassment by the Klan and the Church
In 1956, as the boycott continued, Hughes decided to leave Montgomery and open an office in Birmingham.
“Birmingham was where the action was, but I think what spurred the decision to relocate to Birmingham was when the company that owned the Montgomery office building refused to renew his lease,” Jimerson says.
“He also realized that while the Montgomery bus boycott had not been settled at that point, it was moving toward a settlement, and he realized that the next, larger area to tackle was Northern Alabama, particularly the area around Birmingham where racial tensions were at an all-time high. There had been numerous bombings of Black churches and homes of Black leaders in that community.”
After moving to Birmingham, Hughes and his family experienced harassment that was even more intense than what they had endured in Montgomery.
The Methodist laymen’s group aimed to push Hughes out of ministry and called for a revocation of his license to preach in the North Alabama conference.
The persecution came from not just the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, but also from a Methodist laymen’s association that was adamantly against racial integration. The laymen’s group, in fact, worked to vilify Hughes and ruin his reputation by distributing newsletters and flyers that labeled him and the Alabama Council on Human Relations as “Communist.”
“They very quickly singled Hughes out as being one of the leading advocates for integration, and so they targeted him.”
Four Days in Jail
In 1960, Hughes, who was a source in Birmingham for New York Times reporter Harrison Salisbury, became part in what would later become a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case on freedom of the press.
Salisbury published two lengthy articles about fear and hatred in Birmingham to highlight ongoing tensions and racial issues in Alabama; in reaction, the cities of Birmingham and Bessemer brought charges against Hughes, Salisbury, and several others for defamation and demanded that Hughes turn over the Alabama Council on Human Relations membership list.
“Hughes refused to do that because he knew that would make the members targets of vilification and harassment,” Jimerson says.
And so Hughes went on trial and spent four days in a Bessemer jail awaiting the outcome of the negotiations for his conviction or release. After four days, he was released, just as the North Alabama Methodist annual conference opened in Birmingham.
They very quickly singled Hughes out as being one of the leading advocates for integration, and so they targeted him.
The Methodist laymen’s group aimed to push Hughes out of ministry and called for a revocation of his license to preach in the North Alabama conference, Jimerson says. “So he was forced to decide between giving up his ministerial credentials, or his work with the Alabama Council.
“He decided he wasn’t going to back down. He believed that what he was doing with the Alabama Council was more important than anything he would be able to do as a church minister,” Jimerson says.
After leaving Birmingham, Hughes moved with his family to begin missionary work in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). (Courtesy of Dorothy S. Hughes)
Missionary Work in Africa
Then the Rev. Ralph Dodge, a Methodist Bishop of Southern Rhodesia, invited Hughes to become a missionary in Southern Rhodesia, a country that has since been renamed Zimbabwe.
“Hughes had always wanted to be a missionary, initially in India after input from Dr. Jones,” Jimerson says. So to keep his ministerial credentials, he agreed to leave Birmingham and take the missionary job.
“It reminds me a little of the story of Brer Rabbit who said, ‘Please don’t throw me into that briar patch.’ Missionary work was what Hughes had always wanted to do, from the time he started as a ministry student.”
Ironically, Southern Rhodesia, a former British colony, was, like the American South, embroiled in bitter clashes between indigenous Africans and white settlers who controlled the nation’s government and its industries.
In Southern Rhodesia, Hughes worked to open dialogue between Black and white ministers. (Courtesy of Dorothy S. Hughes)
“Hughes was appointed by Bishop Dodge with the title of Representative for Social Evangelism. It was a vague title, but it essentially meant that he would be involved in examining how church values played into questions about the Black majority in Southern Rhodesia and their oppression by the white minority,” Jimerson says.
As a missionary, Hughes worked with Black fraternal ministers and various social concerns and committees within the Methodist Church.
“He worked to make interracial connections between the Southern Rhodesian Black population and sympathetic white ministers and missionaries,” Jimerson says.
But eventually, the government forced Hughes and Bishop Dodge out of the country, labeling them “prohibited immigrants.” So they relocated to Northern Rhodesia, which later became Zambia.
True to His Values
After five years of living overseas, Hughes and his family moved back to the United States, and he accepted a position in Atlanta with the Community Relations Service (CRS), an organization created under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The CRS provides services designed to promote peace and prevent community conflicts and hate crimes.
Hughes later spent several years working for the Seattle Community Relations Service in the state of Washington before retiring in 1994.
In 2012, Hughes died of cancer at the age of 84.
Jimerson says that in researching Hughes’s life for the book, he was surprised that he could not find anyone who spoke ill of Hughes.
He just seemed like a person who had strong opinions and wanted to support his values and beliefs, and he did so without fear of retribution and oppression.
“Almost no one had any criticism. He just seemed like a person who had strong opinions and wanted to support his values and beliefs, and he did so without fear of retribution and oppression,” Jimerson says.
“Hughes was a courageous person who endured a lot of harassment, a lot of vilification, both in Africa and in Alabama. And yet, he stayed true to his values.”