Bishop John Hurst Adams was pastor at Seattle’s First African Methodist Episcopal (FAME) Church from 1962 to 1968 and a leader in the city’s civil rights struggle. He moved to other cities and states after 1968, rising to national prominence as a religious and civil rights leader.
Born in Columbia, S.C., to Reverend Eugene Avery Adams and Charity Nash Adams, he and his three siblings were raised in a spiritual and intellectually stimulating home. His father was an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) minister and social activist who in the 1920s organized the first Negro bank in Columbia and the first statewide civil rights organization in South Carolina. None of these activities went unnoticed by young John and they helped to define his later focus and commitments.
He was educated in the segregated Columbia school system and graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in 1947. His undergraduate work was completed at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., where he earned a degree in history. Five years later after studying at Boston University School of Theology he received a Bachelor of Sacred Theology (STB). By 1956 he had earned his Master of Sacred Theology (MTB) there. While at the university he befriended Martin Luther King Jr., who was pursuing a Ph.D. in systematic theology. He became an apostle of King and his doctrine of nonviolence. Adams also studied at Harvard University and Union Theological Seminary.
As a seminary student Adams was assigned to the pastorate of Bethel A.M.E. Church in Lynn, Massachusetts. He served on the seminary teaching faculty at Payne Theological Seminary at Wilberforce University in Ohio. In 1956 he became President of Paul Quinn College in Waco, Texas, and also served as campus pastor to all the students.
Pastor, Troublemaker, Leader
In 1962, Adams came to Seattle as pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME) and began his ascent as a national leader. The members of the church were at first dismayed by this fiery young man who spoke out so bluntly about social conditions in the city and by his style of ministry.
The white community labeled him a troublemaker. Not long afterward, however, he became a leader of the civil rights movement in Seattle and had earned the respect of both the black and white communities. His articulate assessment of the race problems and his passionate belief in the potential of the city were the sparks that ignited one of the most successful movements in the country. He was the key spokesman for black people during the height of the movement in Seattle.
Civil Rights in Seattle
He chaired the Central Area Civil Rights Committee made up of heads of all the local civil rights organizations ranging from Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Walter Hundley; NAACP, Charles Johnson and E. June Smith; to Seattle Urban League, Edwin T. Pratt, who was murdered on the doorstep of his home in 1969. The Committee was forceful and unique because it had a unified front pressing for citywide racial reform and it determined the local civil rights agenda.
Adams co-founded the Central Area Motivation Program, the country’s first war on poverty agency. In 1963 he led a march downtown for equal employment, led the fight for an open housing ordinance in 1964, and in 1966 spearheaded the school boycott to force integration in the Seattle Public Schools. He served on the Model Cities Planning Board and watched the agency become a model for the rest of the nation. His influence spread as he was appointed to the Governor’s Urban Affairs Committee, United Good Neighbors Planning Committee, and to the boards of the Council of Churches and the YMCA.
Among his many awards during this period were the Man of the Year Award by the Seattle Chapter of B’nai B’rith in 1964 and Man of the Year award by the Seattle Urban League in 1965.
Pride in Los Angeles
He was appointed pastor of Grant A.M.E. Church in the Watts section of Los Angeles in 1968, three years after the riot. He became involved in NAACP activities and led a freedom patrol based on his Seattle experience.
His thrust was program, however, not protest. He launched the Education Growth Organization and Black Church Ethnic Schools with a published curriculum, which spread to six other churches in the city. With the purpose of developing pride and academic excellence, the Grant A.M.E. school for middle school students was held every Saturday morning with free breakfast and lunch. The curriculum included Mathematics, English, and Black History.
Bishop John Hurst Adams
In 1972 he was appointed Bishop of the Tenth Episcopal District (Texas) and continued his civil rights activism by escorting a student to integrate the Waco Public School and by supporting student protests to integrate all facilities in Waco. Recognizing the need for establishing communication across denominational lines he founded the Congress of National Black Churches in 1978.
From 1980 until 1988, he served as Bishop of the Second Episcopal District (Maryland, Washington D.C., North Carolina, and Virginia) and began his pioneering efforts of expansion by facilitating the formation of 35 new congregations in his jurisdiction. His next four years were served as Bishop of the Sixth Episcopal District (Georgia) where he welcomed four new congregations and continued his interest in civil rights by resigning from the National Boards of the Urban League and Southern Christian Leadership Conference in protest when their presidents supported the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court.
From 1992 until 2000 he was Bishop of the Seventh Episcopal District (South Carolina) where he promoted the formation of 10 new congregations and was a leader of the successful removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House. His last four years, from 2000 to 2004 were spent as Bishop of the Eleventh Episcopal District (Florida, Barbados) and where he encouraged the growth of 11 new congregations and oversaw the reorganization of fiscal affairs and indebtedness. He retired in 2005 and became Adjunct Professor at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University.
His special and civic ministries included a vast array of social and educational activities that included membership on the boards of five colleges and universities and national boards of organizations dealing with racial, economic, and social problems. He was the recipient of more than 25 awards for his service to the community.