Referred to as the “spiritual father” of the civil rights movement by Martin Luther King Jr., minister Solomon Seay Sr. (1899-1988) played key roles in several early grassroots civil rights movement efforts in Alabama’s Black Belt region and beyond. In the late 1940s, Seay became an active member in Montgomery’s Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance and other civic groups that paved the way for the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), for which Seay served as its third president and authored the organization’s preamble. Seay advised King on the development of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and was a defendant in the New York Times v. Sullivan U.S. Supreme Court case that helped guarantee freedom of speech and the press in the United States. He also served as a minister for the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church in congregations throughout the southeastern United States from the 1920s into the 1970s.
Seay Sr. was born on January 25, 1899, near Shorter, Macon County, in the tenant farming community of Michel Hill. He was the 13th of 18 children born to Isaac Seay and Hagger Warren Seay. Isaac worked as a tie cutter for railroads and as a result spent much of his time away from home; the rest of the family worked on the local Pinkston plantation as sharecroppers. Seay developed a childhood interest in reading Christian theology and received his early education at the White A.M.E. Church near Shorter and the Mount Meigs Institute, also known as Carter’s School, established in 1888 by Tuskegee Institute graduate Cornelia Bowden near Montgomery, Montgomery County.
Seay left home with several brothers in 1915 to work in various railroad and steel mill camps. He returned to Alabama in 1918 to complete his education, entering the Lomax-Hannon School, which trained African American ministers for the AME Church, near Greenville, Butler County. There, Seay honed his talents for public speaking and song-leading, and upon completing his studies in 1920 was assigned to the St. Luke Circuit near Camden, Mississippi. There, Seay wed Ida Brown, but the marriage would be short-lived. Over the next decade, Seay was assigned to numerous circuits, including Greenville, Montgomery, and Talladega, Talladega County. During this time, Seay also farmed, ran a general store, and studied for a bachelor’s degree at Talladega College and Alabama State University but did not graduate because of the demands of his ministry. In December 1928, he married Carrie Long, with whom he would have four children.
Seay continued moving his ministry wherever the presiding bishop directed him. At each new post, he became involved with leaders of the local African American community to address civil rights issues. At Lomax-Hannon, Seay worked with Thomas Monroe Campbell, the first African American federal farm agent, on topics such as malnutrition, exploitation of African Americans by white bootleggers, and loss of land to rich landholders. Seay and his family moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1939, where he took over the ministry of Trinity AME Church, one of the state’s largest African American churches. Seay also became a member of the Central Committee at local Bennett College and helped conduct voter registration drives. He was sent to Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1943 and while there led a petition effort to desegregate public transportation. He and supporters in his church and at nearby Knoxville College threatened to boycott and establish their own bus routes if the city did not comply. Seay’s efforts were unsuccessful, however, and the Knoxville buses would not be integrated until 1956.
In April 1944, Seay made a short trip to his native Alabama when Arthur Madison, Montgomery’s only African American attorney and Seay’s brother-in-law, was disbarred for registering African American voters. In June 1948, after a reorganization of the ministries within the AME church, Seay was assigned the Mount Zion AME Church in Montgomery. There, he joined committees established by Rosa Parks, E. D. Nixon, Rufus A. Lewis, and E. G. Jackson to represent local African American women who had been raped by white men. The 1949 assault of Gertrude Perkins prompted Seay and Nixon to help form the Citizens Committee. Their efforts, combined with those of Montgomery’s Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, the Women’s Political Council, and the Negro Improvement League on which Seay also served, led to the formation of the Citizens Coordinating Committee in 1954 to oppose abuses against African Americans in Montgomery. Seay and other local African American ministers and organization members aided Ralph D. Abernathy and Martin Luther King Jr. after they took the lead in civil rights efforts in Montgomery in 1951 and 1954, respectively.
In December 1955, Seay and other activists formed the MIA to organize the Montgomery bus boycott, with Seay serving on the MIA executive board in January 1956. In February, he helped Fred Gray prepare a strategy for the State of Alabama v. M. L. King, Jr. lawsuit, in which King, Seay, and 88 other protesters were charged with illegally boycotting Montgomery businesses (only King was found guilty and later paid a fine). Seay also worked with the MIA to lead the initial mass meetings of the boycott, provide emotional support to the protesters, and ensure African American churches were routinely patrolled and protected against violence. When King led the formation of the SCLC in January 1957, Seay attended several initial meetings and urged King to develop the conference as a cooperative of local agencies like the MIA, to include both rural and urban areas in the protest movement, and to aid protestors in other cities where support in the black community was lacking. In February 1960, King left Montgomery and the MIA for SCLC headquarters in Atlanta, leaving Abernathy and Seay in charge. After Freedom Riders were attacked and scattered by white supremacists in Montgomery on May 20, 1961, they found a refuge at Seay’s home in Madison Park. On May 21, Seay opened the mass meeting conducted at Abernathy’s First Baptist Church while a mob of white supremacists gathered outside of the church; it was later dispersed by the National Guard and federal marshals. On May 25, shortly after the federal government announced the withdrawal of 500 federal marshals from Montgomery, Seay was shot in his wrist by white youths in a passing car as he stepped outside of his home in Madison Park. The action prompted King to issue a statement to Pres. John F. Kennedy regarding the violence in Montgomery.
That December, Abernathy left Montgomery for Atlanta, and Seay became the third president of the MIA. Also in 1960, Seay and activist ministers Fred Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy, and Joseph Echols Lowery were sued for libel by Montgomery commissioner of public affairs Lester B. Sullivan. He accused them of signing an advertisement in the New York Times that accused Montgomery police of brutality. The four ministers were represented by Seay’s son, attorney Solomon Seay Jr., along with Fred Gray and Vernon Z. Crawford, who maintained that the ministers’ names were used without their consent. The four men and the New York Times were found guilty in an Alabama court and ordered to pay Sullivan $500,000. The case came before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1964, with different representation, as Abernathy et al. v. Sullivan, and the lower court’s ruling was overturned.
In 1964, Seay established a Head Start center in the Madison Park community to promote better education, business, health, and housing opportunities for local African Americans and opened an additional 25 centers in the city by the end of 1965. That year, Seay was assigned to the Clinton Memorial AME Church in Selma. Seay established Head Start facilities in Selma as well and developed credit unions with the assistance of local leader Ed Moss to provide investment opportunities to poor African American farmers. He left the MIA in 1967 and was replaced as president by Johnnie Carr. He later served as a missionary to West African countries including Senegal, Liberia, Ghana, and Nigeria, in the spring of 1971.
Seay returned to Butler County in 1972 as the presiding elder of the Greenville District and retired ten years later at the age of 83. He moved back to Montgomery, where he served as the supply minister for the Williams Chapel congregation. Seay died on April 8, 1988, at his home in Madison Park in Montgomery and was buried in the Madison family cemetery in Madison Park next to his wife Carrie Seay. His children include noted civil rights attorney Solomon Seay Jr. (1931–2015) and Hagalyn Seay Wilson (1930- 2006), who was the first African American woman to become a physician in Montgomery.
Gray, Fred D. Bus Ride to Justice: The Life and Works of Fred D. Gray. Montgomery, Ala.: New South Books, 1995.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1958.
McGuire, Danielle T. At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance – a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.
Seay, Solomon, Jr., and Delores R. Boyd. Jim Crow and Me: Stories from My Life as a Civil Rights Lawyer. Montgomery, Ala.: New South Books, 2009.
Seay, Solomon, Sr. I Was There by the Grace of God. Montgomery, Ala.: S. S. Seay, Sr. Educational Foundation, 1990.