MINISTER AND CIVIL RIGHTS ADVOCATE Andrew Hairston marks a half-century with historic Atlanta church.
The Simpson Street Church of Christ began shortly after the famous black traveling evangelist Marshall Keeble preached in the “mud hole,” a place that filled with mire when rains fell on Depression-era Atlanta.
The church’s story would stretch decades, through the post-World War II years, the turbulent days of the civil rights movement, all the way to the election of the nation’s first African-American president.
The longest chapter in that story is the ministry of Simpson Street preacher Andrew Hairston, who recently celebrated five decades at the historic Atlanta congregation. The celebration included congratulations from Atlanta dignitaries and church leaders across the nation — testament to Hairston’s impact far beyond Simpson Street as preacher, attorney and judge.
HAND-ME-DOWNS AND SCHOLARSHIPS
Hairston’s accomplishments contrast his beginnings.
Born near Winston-Salem, N.C., the 13th of 15 children, Hairston lost his father, a tenant farmer, at age 6.
His single mom cleaned homes during the day to support the family. Hand-me-downs from the whites who employed Hairston’s mother provided clothing for the future minister and his siblings.
After high school, Hairston took a job driving an ice cream truck. When a sister living in Detroit encouraged him to attend historically black Southwestern Christian College, then persuaded her Sunday school class to provide a $50 scholarship, Hairston took his ice cream earnings and began what would become a lifelong pursuit of education.
With most colleges and universities in Churches of Christ still refusing to admit black students, Hairston became part of a pioneering generation of students at Southwestern, which opened its Terrell, Texas, campus in 1950.
After completing a two-year degree, Hairston stayed for a bachelor’s in Bible, becoming one of Southwestern’s first four-year graduates.
“There hadn’t been a class that went to Southwestern the same as we were. We were kind of a unique group,” Hairston, now 79, said of those early graduates. “They are brotherhood leaders now.”
Before finishing at Southwestern, Hairston accepted an interim minister position in Fort Worth, where he met Jeanne, his wife of almost 60 years.
After graduating, moving to Waco, Texas, to preach and completing two additional bachelor’s degrees, Hairston decided to pursue graduate studies in theology.
Southwestern founder and key African-American church leader G.E. Steward suggested the young preacher enroll in Brite Seminary at the recently integrated Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.
Hairston’s decision to continue studying typified the passion for education that would shape his entire career.
“I … hadn’t heard anything about no seminary,” Hairston quipped as he recalled hearing Baptist preacher friends talk about graduate study. “That sounds interesting, I think I’m going to do that,” he thought. His salary was a modest $50 a week. But he wanted to learn. SAVING SOULS AND CIVIL RIGHTS
Hairston was studying at Brite and preaching in Fort Worth when he learned of the vacancy at Simpson Street.
He preached his first sermon as the new Simpson Street minister on Dec. 3, 1961.
The move to Atlanta came at a crucial time in the city’s — and the nation’s — history. As the U.S. struggled with race and war, Hairston would come into contact with some of the key organizations and figures of the civil rights movement.
Hairston recalled Atlanta meetings where he sat across the table from Martin Luther King Jr.
The Simpson Street minister was a leader in Operation Breadbasket, a program begun in Atlanta in 1962 by King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
With the program encouraging businesses to adopt fair hiring practices, Hairston was one of Operation Breadbasket’s “call men,” or local chairmen. “These are white-owned stores sitting in black communities with all-white employees,” Hairston remembered.
One of the beneficiaries of Hairston’s participation was a Simpson Street member who got a job as a Gulf Oil secretary as a result of Operation Breadbasket’s work.
“Gulf Oil did not have a black person in it who did not push a dust rag or mop,” recalled Hairston, who chaired a committee that targeted the Atlanta employer’s unequal policies.
“I never did a lot of preaching on civil rights as such,” Hairston said. “I would deal with the subject, and deal with righteousness, and get my folk involved in the action.”
He observed that pulpits of the time — both black and white — avoided advocacy of the movement.
“It’s kind of a Church of Christ ethos — that that’s beyond, that’s not what we’re here for. We’re here to baptize and save people,” Hairston explained.
“I moved to Atlanta because I was attracted to civil rights … and cleared that with the leadership here before I came,” he said. FROM THE PULPIT TO THE BENCH
About five years after moving to Georgia, Hairston enrolled in law school. At first he had no intention of practicing. Believing he could better serve the congregation if he had a knowledge of legal matters, the aim was “making myself a well-rounded-out gospel preacher,” he said.
After passing the bar and working in private practice, Hairston became assistant solicitor general in the state court of Fulton County, Ga.
Assigned to prosecute obscenity violations, one of his most famous cases involved notorious Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt, convicted by Fulton County State Court on 11 counts of obscenity in 1979.
By the time Hairston helped prosecute Flynt, he had been appointed Atlanta city solicitor by Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first African-American mayor. Then came an appointment to Atlanta City Court by Mayor Andrew Young. Hairston was elected as the court’s chief judge in 1982 — the first African-American to hold the office — and served in the office until 2005.
Hairston’s long tenure at Simpson Street included various avenues of leadership.
He was as a U.S. Army Reserve chaplain, retiring as full colonel after more than 20 years of service.
With Roosevelt Wells, minister of the Harlem Church of Christ in New York, Hairston co-founded the Wells-Hairston High School in Monrovia, Liberia. Hairston also served as assistant chairman, then chairman of the board of Southwestern. And he helped steer Simpson Street’s construction of a major new worship and educational facility, completed in 2008.
With Hairston’s five decades as Simpson Street minister, people who know him — inside the congregation and out — point to factors in his half-century of successful service.
Foye Hollingsworth, a Simpson Street elder since 1979 who met Hairston shortly before he started at the congregation, called attention to the minister’s generosity.
“He’s a giver,” Hollingworth said, recalling that, to celebrate Hairston’s 35th anniversary at Simpson Street, members raised funds for a gift for Hairston.
“He gave it back to the building program,” the elder said. GIVING SOMETHING ‘HE COULD NOT GIVE BACK’
Celebrating the minister’s 50th anniversary, the church decided to name its new multipurpose building the “Hairston Family Life Center.”
Hollingsworth explained, “This time we decided we were going to give him something that he could not give back.”
Theresia Morrell, whose mother was one of 166 people baptized when evangelist Keeble started Simpson Street, underscored Hairston’s lifelong interest in learning. Morrell herself directed Simpson Street’s educational program for more than 30 years.
“He … continued going back to school,” she observed. “He was busy improving himself as he helped the church improve.”
Leaders in the black church point out that African-American congregations traditionally accord ministers special respect and authority.
“A mainstay in the black community is the black preacher,” Hairston said, adding that the minister was often the only black professional the community knew.
Edward Robinson, Southwestern professor and author of a recent biography of Keeble, referred to the view of author W.E.B. Du Bois that attitudes toward preachers may reach all the way back to the role spiritual leaders played in pre-slavery African communities.
Despite the special position of the preacher in African-American tradition, Robinson stressed the importance of spiritual dedication.
“One must first be committed to God,” Robinson said of the successful minister. A minister must have “some people who are willing to be good followers … and allow him to be himself,” the historian added.
Abilene Christian University Bible professor Jerry Taylor, who considers Hairston a mentor, sees the Simpson Street minister’s “passion for God and his passion for people” as keys to his long success.
“I think he exemplifies a brilliant mind,” Taylor said. “He’s probably one of the best-kept secrets in Churches of Christ, black and white.”