In January 1948, shortly after graduation from Wheaton College, Rev. C. Herbert Oliver ’47 returned home to Birmingham, where he was awakened to the evils of the Jim Crow laws.
“There was a Negro minister in Birmingham who had fathered 13 children and was well-loved in the Negro community. He was very successful in getting Negroes to register to vote. One day, he was found dead in a white community. The police alleged that he was a Peeping Tom, so they shot him, and killed him,” says Oliver.
Only 23 years old at the time, Oliver decided that he needed to equip himself with the tools to fight against the evils of segregation and racism through his faith.
“I went to the funeral home where the Reverend was, and I stood over him in the casket. I looked at him and thought, ‘If this is what they do to a minister, if something is not done to fix this system, then one day I will lie down like him, and it will be the end of me,’” says Oliver. “I was firm in my mind that I would do something about it, and that God would have me do something about it.”
This decision in 1948 changed the course Oliver’s life and ushered him into the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, Alabama in 1960.
Oliver went on to obtain bachelor's and master’s degrees in theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. After serving as the pastor of an Orthodox Presbyterian Church in northern Maine for seven years, he returned to Birmingham to fight segregation under the notorious enforcement of Public Safety Commissioner T. Eugene (Bull) Connor.
As the executive secretary of the Inter-Citizens Committee from 1960-1965, Oliver documented and disseminated over 100 cases of alleged police brutality in Birmingham. Oliver worked closely with Civil Rights Leader Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth and other clergy members.
“I would keep my eyes on the newspapers, and the newspaper would carry stories about people who had been beaten and arrested by policemen. I would find the victim and ask them to tell us their story. Invariably, the stories the victims would tell us were different from the stories the newspaper would put out,” says Oliver.
Oliver learned how to document these cases after filing a report with the FBI to document falsehood in his own arrests by Birmingham policemen. He followed the same pattern of the FBI report he received and ensured that the names of each officer involved were documented.
“I would send out the story to our mailing list of a couple thousand. The list included policemen, Bull Connor, Alabama representatives, and those interested in the work of the Committee. We kept documenting these cases until we ran out of work. By 1965, there were very few cases, so we felt we had done some good,” says Oliver.
Senators and the press occasionally responded to the documented cases, and the documentation influenced Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“When Reverend King came to Birmingham, he requested to read the cases that were documented. After reading these cases, King was willing to accept the challenge that was Birmingham under the rule of Bull Connor,” Oliver says.
After the cases of alleged police brutality were becoming infrequent, Oliver moved to Brooklyn, New York, where he served as the pastor of Westminster Bethany Presbyterian Church from 1967 to 1992.
While in Brooklyn, Oliver was the chairman of the governing board of the Ocean Hill-Brownville School District where he fought for inner city education reform from 1967 until the board was disbanded in 1970.
“The board was aiming to resolve the lack of good education in the community, the same community where Westminster was located. There was a lack of good education, and the teachers and principals were not from the community or invested in the students,” says Oliver. “We were trying to settle the unrest of the community centered in schools.”
Oliver believes that his liberal arts education equipped him with skills needed to be an activist.
He remembers meeting Wheaton College graduates while studying at the Missionary Training Institute (now Nyack College) in the early 1940s. Oliver was impressed with their ability to grapple with the works of classical philosophers, as well as the Bible.
“I saw Wheaton College graduates who came to Nyack after getting a liberal arts education at Wheaton, and they wanted to study the Bible. I met many of them. I was impressed by them because I saw that they were able to discuss philosophy with ease. They could talk about Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato and were comfortable with it,” Oliver says. “When I found these minds were coming from Wheaton College, that’s where I wanted to go. I had studied the Bible, but I wasn’t ready to go out into this world with only a Bible education. I wanted a broader education so I could deal with people on any and every intellectual plain.”
Oliver’s faith—not just his liberal arts education—also informed his fight for civil rights in Birmingham and for education reform in Brooklyn, and his assurance in the role of the church.
Oliver believes that the church has the potential to lead the fights for civil liberties even today.
“I am confident in the power of the church,” says Oliver. “The church has given me the freedom to speak my mind, and to speak the truth, on issues of race, civil rights, and education.”