Among the stately churches along Chicago’s Rev. Martin Luther King Drive is Liberty Baptist, a distinctly modern building with a parabolic facade.
When it was built in 1956, the building’s architecture was a notable departure from classical church designs. But it was more than the style that put the South Side church on the map. In 1960, it was the scene of a vigorous attempt to help the United States take a big step away from its segregated past.
That summer, while the country was in the midst of a civil rights reckoning, the Republican Party held its convention at the Chicago Amphitheater, which was then at 42nd & Halsted.
By the time the convention arrived in Chicago, it was clear Richard Nixon would win the nomination. However, another candidate, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, came to town to push the Republicans on civil rights. He did so in part from the pulpit of Liberty Baptist.
Rockefeller had a strong record on civil rights and his grandparents, Standard Oil baron John and Laura Spelman Rockefeller, had been major financial supporters of what are now two major historically Black colleges and universities, Morehouse and Spelman colleges in Atlanta.
The New York governor wanted the Republican platform to explicitly endorse the people who were leading sit ins, and to endorse white business owners who provided equal service to Black customers. He also wanted the party platform to endorse fairness in housing, employment and education.
Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP, said Rockefeller’s ideas would put a “backbone” in a platform that otherwise would have been “spaghetti.”
Wilkins, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders organized a march of Black voters to the Amphitheater, which was demolished on July 25, 1999. To rally support, Rockefeller and King spoke at Liberty Baptist Church the day before the march.
Rockefeller entered the church — with 2,500 people inside and another 2,000 outside — to the strains of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and received a “rousing ovation” when he said the Republicans’ civil rights plank would “speak clearly and unequivocally,” according to newspaper reports.
The church still looks largely the same as it did when Rockefeller spoke. The lobby has the same speckled black flooring with insets of Christian symbols — a dove, an olive branch — and along the aisles the seat arms still have a ribbed chrome wrap like something off a late-1950s car fender.
Rockefeller promised to fight for a crackdown on suppression of the Black vote in southern states, federal action to desegregate schools, and government action to end discrimination in housing.
Today, the primary thing that looks different from the 1960 video of Rockefeller’s speech is the giant glass wall at the rear, eastern end of the sanctuary. In the video, that wall is square panels of plain sheet glass, but now that wall is all colorful stained glass, probably installed in the 1970s when a new baptismal font was built on the landing above and behind the altar.
The day after Rockefeller spoke at Liberty Baptist, Nixon endorsed the sit ins.
Even so, more conservative voices in the party shut down the plan for the Republican party to take the lead on civil rights. They argued against federal intervention in the sit ins, saying that sit ins amounted to trespassing on private property, and pushing against federal intervention in the issue.
The Chicago Tribune’s front page headline read “Rockefeller rebuffed on civil rights.” The story described the conservative wing of the party as “repudiating” Rockefeller’s ideas and how his attempt to make Republicans the party of civil rights fizzled here in Chicago.
Dennis Rodkin is a real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Reset’s “What’s That Building?” contributor.