Joseph Ellwanger

Witness to the Movement, Then and Now

Solomon Crenshaw Jr.

The Reverend Joseph Ellwanger looks back at the year 1963, when he took a leap of faith and joined the civil rights movement, and he discusses the continuing struggle today.

The Rev. Joseph Ellwanger was one of the few white pastors in Alabama to actively participate in the Black civil rights movement.


The Rev. Joseph Ellwanger is a man who once fought on the frontlines of the Civil Rights Movement in this country. 

Ellwanger, who is white, was part of the 1960s steering committee of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a group led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and he played a leadership role in several key civil rights activities in Alabama.

For example, on March 6, 1965—the day before Bloody Sunday—Ellwanger led 72 white Alabamians to Selma to participate in the Concerned White Citizens march supporting voting rights for African Americans; he was also part of the SCLC delegation that met with President Lyndon Johnson on the Friday after Bloody Sunday, to push for a new voting rights act.

While heading a march of 72 “Concerned White Citizens of Alabama” on March 6, 1965, in Selma, Ellwanger, left, was confronted by the Dallas County deputy sheriff.  Photo by UPI Telephoto.


A Lone White Pastor

Ellwanger was born in St. Louis, Mo., but grew up in Selma, Ala. He left his childhood home in 1958, after St. Paul Lutheran Church, an African American congregation in Birmingham, requested a pastoral candidate from his class at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis.

It was during his stint at St. Paul that he joined the SCLC’s fight for civil rights, despite being the lone white pastor to join the campaign. Other preachers – white and some Black – hesitated to join the Movement, and some received pushback from their congregations for daring to even bring up civil rights.

Ellwanger, however, says he had a different experience, receiving affirmation and encouragement from his congregation. Still, he faced challenges to his involvement in the Movement. That’s because he served the Lutheran Church’s Missouri Synod (LCMS), a conservative denomination that resisted getting involved in activities connected to politics and social activism. 

I had to overcome my own conservative theological background…in order to take this position.

“I had to overcome my own conservative theological background and my conservative fellow members of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod in order to take this position,” he says. “In fact, I was critiqued and censored a couple of times by what would have been … the president of the district. He was, so to speak, my boss and definitely reprimanded me and threatened me for getting involved.”

Solid, Basic Gospel

Now retired and living in Milwaukee, Ellwanger says he did not join the fight by way of a personal invitation from King. He knew, in fact, of a couple of St. Paul members – just average, ordinary, blue-collar workers – who got involved with the civil rights movement. But for him, the call came from within, having watched many demonstrations in 1963.

“I really felt the need to, at the very least, find out what was happening and then I could make my decision as to whether I would participate,” he recalls. “I went on my own accord to Movement meetings at the 16th Street Baptist Church that were held almost every evening during that time of the demonstrations in the spring of 1963.”

Eventually, Ellwanger obtained an invitation to meet with the SCLC’s steering committee, which frequently met at the A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham. Those meetings brought him into contact with Dr. King, Andrew Young, and others who were engaged in the Birmingham demonstrations, he says. The group made decisions regarding the direction and steps that the Movement would take from day to day.

The issues that Dr. King and the SCLC were…working to change were issues that I saw, that I understood, that I felt deeply about.

“The issues that Dr. King and the SCLC were up against and working to change were issues that I saw, that I understood, that I felt deeply about,” Ellwanger says, “and a reminder of how segregated the realities are, that people do not see the inequality and the injustice of these realities. 

“For some, they honestly don’t see the realities because they’re living in a bubble, in a totally white community, and they do not understand the realities that are still in existence, of course, in every nook and cranny of this country,” he says.

As part of the SCLC’s steering committee, Ellwanger recruited students and clergy to join the Movement. “My elevator speech made it very clear that Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Movement were not communist-connected in any way. It was literally the Gospel that was motivating them to bring about the justice that we as people of faith and Christians specifically are called to be about. 

“‘Participating in the Movement,’ I told my peers, ‘is what I see God calling me to do at this time,’” he continues. “This is … calling the larger community to simply treat people as human beings.’” 

“If that is not the real solid basic Gospel, then they have been misreading the Bible and misreading the Gospel over the years.”

High-level Meetings

Ellwanger was among about a dozen SCLC preachers who met with Alabama Governor George Wallace, who fervently argued for racial segregation. Even though King and SCLC staff recognized they probably were not going to change Wallace’s mind, they felt they were taking an important step by meeting with him.

“Regardless of whether Wallace would budge on any of the requests that we would make, the fact that we met with him and he actually met with us was an important step to demonstrate to the state of Alabama, to Blacks and whites, that we were a legitimate group that should have the opportunity to talk with the governor,” Ellwanger says.

Leaders of the Movement wanted every person in the state of Alabama to be able to vote and choose governmental leaders. 

About a month after passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Ellwanger attended an SCLC dinner in Birmingham with civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Wallace gave a typical response, Ellwanger says, arguing that the state had its rules about who could vote, while refusing to acknowledge that the State unfairly applied those rules.

The pastor had a much better feeling about another gathering of which he was a part – the meeting of leaders of the National Council of Christian Churches with President Lyndon Johnson. That meeting was on March 12, 1965, the Friday following Bloody Sunday. 

The group, he says, held a rally before that meeting at Reformation Lutheran Church there in Washington, D.C. 

“Most of the delegation that was to meet with President Johnson that afternoon came together there at this church for a rally, and the church was packed,” he recalls. “As we walked in, there was a spontaneous response of people standing and clapping. 

Most of the delegation that was to meet with President Johnson that afternoon came together there at this church for a rally, and the church was packed.

“For a church to be packed simply to support a small group of a dozen or so clergy who were going to meet with President Johnson was just a sign that the Movement had gained tremendous strength, especially since Bloody Sunday,” he says.

Later, at the meeting with President Johnson, Ellwanger says he sensed that “something special” would happen in that meeting. Each visitor, they were told, would get to have their say with the Commander in Chief.

“My basic message was simply that I wanted President Johnson to know that I was from the South, living and working in Birmingham and from Selma and that I had, in fact, participated in some of the demonstrations there in Selma,” Ellwanger says. “But I wanted him to know that here was a white Southerner who supported that call for a strong Voting Rights Act. 

Ellwanger was interviewed by the Eyes on the Prize film team in 1985.

Joseph Ellwanger 4

When he led the Concerned White Citizens voting rights march in Selma in 1965, Ellwanger was joined by other key Birmingham activists, including Eileen Walbert, pictured here at left.

“But, I said, ‘What really motivates me, and what I want you to be aware of, is that I have Black, fellow Lutheran clergy in Alabama who cannot vote. Here they are, graduates of the seminary, very capable, hard-working members of the community. For them, not to be able to vote is a travesty in this country at this time.’”

Ellwanger says he doesn’t know how much any one statement impacted President Johnson that day. 

“But what I’m sure did make an impact was the fact that we had 12 to 15 clergy from a broad spectrum of denominations, from all parts of the country, all communicating to Johnson that the religious community supported this drive for a strong voting rights act that would finally make it possible for people anywhere in the country to be able to vote, to remove the barriers that had been there for so long.”

An Ongoing Struggle

The Voting Rights Act was passed in August of 1965. But in some respects, the battle for civil and voting rights in the United States still wages on today, Ellwanger stresses.

“The pushback to suppress the vote and make it more difficult for people to vote is what happens after there is some real progress in the quest for justice,” the 88-year-old says. “Once a victory is won, the opposition finds a way to try to get back at it. That’s exactly what is happening, of course, at the present time.”

The continuing battle for civil rights nearly 60 years after Bloody Sunday and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 that killed four young Black girls is extremely disappointing, Ellwanger says. 

“We would like to believe that the United States Congress, the leaders of this country, would recognize the injustice involved in the voter suppression efforts and would not make it a partisan issue, as they are doing,” he says.

…there are a lot of politicians and elected leaders who simply do not want to admit and recognize the inequality.

“It’s a reminder that there are a lot of politicians and elected leaders who simply do not want to admit and recognize the inequality and the reality of this pushback and the watering down of this Voting Rights Act, which was approved by, of all groups, the Supreme Court,” he says.

Moreover, it is a sad commentary that the country still does not recognize the realities in minority communities and poverty communities, he says. “It’s just a reminder that many in Congress don’t appreciate and understand the inequalities and the realities at the grassroots level in poverty communities and in African American and minority communities.”

It’s a reminder, says Ellwanger, of just how far American society has yet to go.

Ellwanger was outspoken about racial justice and often appeared in Birmingham News articles and editorials.


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