Bishop Calvin Woods: The lasting legacy of a Birmingham civil rights giant


Visiting his grandfather, Bishop Calvin Woods, in Birmingham’s Central Park neighborhood, Mike McClure Jr. and his other younger family members did what most children did when they were around their elders: Have fun.

Woods’ daughter, Angela, is McClure’s mother. “One of the things that’s incredible to me is for the longest we didn’t know you were this civil rights icon. You were just Granddaddy,” McClure told Woods during a recent interview. “So, for me, I want to say, ‘thank you,’ and I think it’s so important for people who are reading this to understand that you can be great and still have a family life. You know, I remember coming over for Christmas or literally moving back to Birmingham, just sleeping in one of the rooms at your house. I know you don’t want me to say this — (I remember you) chasing us down the hallway with your teeth,” McClure said as both of them laughed. “Or I can remember you shooting squirrels. Or putting all of us in the car, taking us to Krystal or McDonald’s.”

Looking back, McClure, 38, pastor of Rock City Church in Forestdale, said he had a question for his grandfather: “How important is family?”

“It’s very important,” Woods replied. “God made you a human; he expects you to be a human. Don’t neglect that humanness, because that’s what you are. Don’t try to pretend you are ‘so this’ and you are ‘so that.’ You have pluses, you have negatives, you have human frailties as well as successes. And no need trying to deny that God expects us to do that. We’ve got to take time and realize we’re humans and humans have needs.”

Woods said he was called to preach, which “I was supposed to do. God will put you in place. … He is the God of all creation. So, it’s better when you cooperate, know who to cooperate with and who to desist from. You can’t cooperate with everybody for everything. … I tried to find out what God wanted me to do. And if I had to (do the work) by myself, or until he gave me somebody else, a lot of time you hate to ask for help for certain things, but if you’re working for God, you do what he tells you to do.”

Last month, Woods, 88, stepped down as president of the Birmingham chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Here are excerpts from the interview with McClure that took place in late December inside a conference room at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. A longer piece drawn from their conversation can be found here.

Pastor Mike McClure Jr., left, with his grandfather, Bishop Calvin Woods. (Amarr Croskey / The Birmingham Times)

Mike McClure Jr.: When great men and women pass and go on to be with God, I’ve always seen their funerals and say, ‘Why are they doing all that?’ So in your mind, when that day comes, have you already thought about what you want to happen? … I know you write a lot. I don’t think people realize how much you write. Have you thought about all those moments?

Bishop Calvin Woods: I have about 15 books I’ve written since starting back in the late ’50s – visions I hope when I’m gone you all (family members) will get them. I keep them under lock and key, because a lot of stuff in there I wouldn’t want to put out. … A lot of folks misinterpret stuff. … But years ago, my wife went over to Ensley, where her mother could fix her hair. I was living in Loveman’s Village (public housing) and I remember that Saturday morning I was in the kitchen and all of sudden something like smoke got in the kitchen and I said, ‘What is this?’ All at once I was carried off in the spirit and saw above was a beautiful crown and a (voice) spoke, ‘your crown.’ So, I know God has a crown and I’ve never forgot that. I wasn’t asleep. I wasn’t in the bed having no dream. I saw that, that crown. Another time I saw a great big chair up in the sky, great big chair. And a (voice spoke), ‘your chair.’ This was a vision I had like that. I just pray that God through his mercy will let me make it in. The more you learn about God, the more you realize that it ain’t because of your goodness; all of us have sin and come short. … If he just let me make it in, I’m looking forward to that because of His grace and His mercy.

So, I’ll be happy if I’ve helped somebody. And I’m just begging him now, Lord, ‘Don’t take that till I do a little more to help somebody.’ He’s going to let you see where you could have maybe done this or did that and then he’ll call you. Let you know. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to help folk down here; we want to help them to be saved. What would it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul? … That’s my main thing I’m after. We’re intercessors concerned about people trying to help them for real. That’s what we’re doing. We got to keep on doing that. I thank you, Jesus. He’s real.

McClure: When we say Bishop Calvin Woods is retiring from the SCLC, many people are asking, so, does that mean that if there is injustice, he’s not going to say anything?

Woods: I’m not going to hell rejecting God, and what I learned is that I can be of assistance to anybody. … I didn’t even want to turn it loose in just anybody’s hand, but God (will) let you know it’s time for somebody else. He’ll handle that. Somebody was blowing for me.

This a vision I’m telling you about. A horn is blowing. … Went to the door and looked and there are some folks in a car. (They’re saying), ‘Come and hurry up; get your place up front. Come on. Come on. Hurry up.’ The horn was just sounding. It was an emergency, so I had to leave. That was just a part of it. They had a seat waiting for me right up there in the front and I came out of there. That wasn’t just the only reason, so I’m just telling you some things like that because a lot of folk don’t believe in that, but I’m just telling the truth about it. I have no doubt about that and if you’re going to be used by God, you can’t just obey him part of the way, so that being an intercessor, that’s what we all got to do, should be doing all the time. Helping others, standing together, not just working for yourself. That means you got to keep working in the interest of other folk. That’s the main thing, work it for the interest of other people, and that’s a situation I’ll be in until I die. I know that’s what I am because God told me, called me that. Just like when I got to be a bishop, he called me that, he made me that, just as plain as day … so whatever titles I use, the Lord has done that.”

This story originally was published by The Birmingham Times.



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