Throwback Thursday: How Mt. Zion Church impacted Civil Rights in SA; Bible that lasted through fire

Generations of families and parishioners have worshipped at Mt. Zion First Baptist Church on the East Side for decades.

SAN ANTONIO – For more than a century, the Mt. Zion First Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Drive has served the San Antonio community and opened its doors to those in need.

“The church was founded back in 1871 by five former slaves and a white minister,” said Rev. Otis I. Mitchell, the current pastor at Mt. Zion.

Mt. Zion church was initially a modest, one-room building located on Santos Street.

“The church was there for a long time until 1924 when they marched from Santos Street to this current location and they built this church,” said Rev. Mitchell.

In 1949, the Rev. Claude Black, Jr. became pastor and led the church to national prominence in the National Baptist Convention.

Rev. Black would become a city and civil rights icon. He had ties with legendary activists such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, Whitney Young, Thurgood Marshall and Barbara Jordan.

“It was through that connection that this church was involved and so much so that Rev. Black became a member of the city council and was the first African-American mayor pro-tem to serve in the city,” said Rev. Mitchell.

The church played a significant role in the civil rights movement in San Antonio and was a precursor to the annual MLK March.

“It was started by a former member here, the Rev. R.A. Callies, Sr. He started the March in 1968 right after Dr. King had been shot,” said Rev. Mitchell.

The church was a beacon of faith for the area, but in 1974, an arsonist burned it down.

“Everything was destroyed except for one Bible. One Bible survived,” said Rev. Mitchell. “We have it encased downstairs and the church was rebuilt within a year. The people said we will not let racist and prejudiced people take our joy.”

The church has experienced tremendous growth after it was rebuilt in 1975.

It continues to serve community members, no matter what race or social status.

“The community that was supported most of the 148 years does not exist,” said Rev. Mitchell. “But we want to serve this community, which is more diverse than the original congregation was and has a different set of needs."

The church is now set to open a new community center to tend to the needs of seniors, children and host after school programs.

The church also has a strong mission in other countries, a food bank and clothing ministry to ensure people who may not have a voice can be heard.

“We’re here to do God’s will and not just to look good or to say, look how long we’ve been here,” said Rev. Mitchell. “We want people to say, ‘look what God is doing.’”

There are generations of families that have walked through the doors and worshipped at Mt. Zion.

Mitchell said the goal is to remain true to the neighborhood and a stalwart of faith.

“I hope that this will be a church where people will say, ‘You know what, I can see and feel and experience the love of God,’’' said Rev. Mitchell.

About the Authors:

RJ Marquez is co-host of KSAT News Now and reports for Good Morning San Antonio. He's been at KSAT since 2010 and covered a variety of stories and events across the San Antonio area. He also covers the Spurs for on-air and digital platforms, including his Spurs newsletter. RJ has reported stories for KSAT Explains.

Andrew Wilson is a digital journalist and social media producer at KSAT.