Back in 1965, when now-U.S. Rep. John Lewis led hundreds of protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., members of African Methodist Episcopal churches were among them.
A half-century later, after two black men died at the hands of police last week in Louisiana and Minnesota, A.M.E. Church members from around the world took to the streets of Center City in protest. They were among about 30,000 A.M.E. members in the city for the denomination's quadrennial conference, which ends Wednesday at the Convention Center.
"Social justice is in our DNA," said the Rev. Mark Tyler of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church in Society Hill.
It was at Mother Bethel that the A.M.E. Church was founded, by a former slave, Richard Allen, in 1816, from several black Methodist congregations seeking independence from white Methodist churches. According to Tyler, Mother Bethel is to A.M.E. members "what Jerusalem is to Jewish people, what the Vatican is for Catholics."
Throughout the conference, which began last Wednesday, Tyler said, attendees have been visiting Mother Bethel, particularly its museum and a new statue of Allen.
Tyler emphasized the sense of community and self-determination the church has provided for black people for two centuries.
"What I say to people [visiting] is, 'Welcome home,' " Tyler said. "When you have your own space, you can do with it what you want. That is extremely freeing for anybody who is in the fight for their own liberation."
The deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile near St. Paul, Minn., and the Dallas sniper attack that killed five police officers last week have compelled some members to take action.
Kandace Taylor, 23, of St. Stephen A.M.E. Church in Jacksonville, Fla., said she had been at a demonstration Thursday in Philadelphia, the second in a string of protests that have continued into this week. Attendees young and old had left the conference for a couple of hours that evening to march, deciding it was a "more pressing issue" than what was on the evening's conference agenda, Taylor said.
"It was just a reminder of how the A.M.E. Church has always been involved in social justice," she said. "That's been a role the A.M.E. Church has played in American history."
Taylor and her sister, Kalila, 18, and brother, Austen, 22, were a few young faces among the conference's predominantly middle-age and elderly crowd.
Elizabeth Allen, 93, from Woodlawn A.M.E. Church in Chicago, said she has attended every conference except one, every four years since 1972. She said she had enjoyed seeing the church's growth and change over the years.
Earlean King, 70, of Greater St. James Temple A.M.E. Church in Dallas, said the conference emphasized compassion over hate in times of political unease.
"One person or a hundred people don't speak for a whole nation or a whole race," said King, who attended with her husband, the Rev. Michael King. "One cop or a hundred cops don't speak for a whole brotherhood of police. . . . Even the marches weren't against the policemen as a whole, but against the injustice of the one or two."
Herman Floyd, 69, also of the Jacksonville church, said attending the conference was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
"We should be involved in what's going on in the community," said Irving Sawyer, 72, of Jacksonville. "We have to come together as people, express our differences, and solve more problems."
Inside the Convention Center's walls, A.M.E. Church members from 39 nations convened to elect the leadership. The size and spread of the church is a testament to Allen's global vision, Tyler said, a perspective uncommon for the founder's time.
Thelma January, 85, of Geda A.M.E. Church near Monrovia, Liberia, said the conference proved that "things are just the same anywhere you go. . . . Doctrines and ways of worship are the same no matter the language or dialect."
Malefsane Malebye, 65, visiting from Agnes B. Hilderbrand A.M.E. Church in Pretoria, South Africa, said it was "humbling" and a "blessing" to see so many people from across the globe worshipping together.