Robert R. Church Jr., a prominent Republican, civil rights leader, and businessman, was born in Memphis on October 26, 1885. He was the son of millionaire Robert R. Church Sr. and his wife Anna Wright Church. Robert Church Jr. married Sara P. Johnson of Washington, D.C., in 1911, and they had one child, Sara Roberta Church.
Church Jr. was educated at Morgan Park Military Academy in Illinois, Oberlin College in Ohio, and the Packard School of Business in New York. He also received two years of training in banking on Wall Street. One of his first jobs was managing Church Park and Auditorium on Beale Street. He later became cashier of the Solvent Savings Bank and Trust Company, founded by his father, whom he succeeded as president after his father's death in 1912.
Active in civil rights and politics, Church Jr. founded and financed the Lincoln League in Memphis in 1916. The Lincoln League organized voter registration drives, voting schools, and paid poll taxes for African American voters, who were largely disfranchised from mainstream politics. Within months of its creation, the League had registered ten thousand voters. A Lincoln League ticket, which included an African American congressional candidate for West Tennessee, entered the 1916 election. The ticket lost, but its attempt established the Lincoln League as a viable and respected political force in Memphis; the league later expanded into a statewide and a national organization.
One year after establishing the Lincoln League in 1917, Church organized the NAACP's first branch in Tennessee in Memphis. In 1919 Church was elected to the national board of NAACP.
Church was a Memphis delegate to eight successive Republican National Conventions from 1912 to 1940. His political organization, the Black and Tans wing of the Memphis Republican Party, supplied the swing votes that carried Republicans to victory in several elections in Memphis and Shelby County. National party officials acknowledged his leadership by consulting with him about federal patronage. In recognition of his controlling influence on the Lincoln League, Republican presidents and other high party officials also consulted with Church about political strategy. Church served on many important policy committees of the Republican Party but was not interested in prestigious positions for himself. In 1922, for example, he declined a presidential appointment to be chairman of the U.S. Commission to Study American Relations with Haiti; two years later, he rejected a similar position with a study commission about American relations with the Virgin Islands.
In 1924 the Congressional Country Club in Washington, D.C., invited Church to become a founder life member. This was probably the first time an African American had been invited to join a prestigious predominantly white country club. But he rejected the invitation because he was the only member of his race to be so invited. Church was active in a number of other social organizations, including the Iroquois Club of Memphis, the Frogs of New York City, and Omega Psi Phi fraternity.
During the New Deal era, Church's political organization and influence began to diminish due to President Franklin Roosevelt's appeal to African American voters, and, more importantly, to the increasing power of the Boss Crump political machine. Church and Crump were neither allies nor partners in political activities. They had totally different political philosophies and maintained autonomous political organizations.
In 1940 the city administration under Crump's direction moved to destroy Church's political base by seizing his real estate holdings, allegedly for taxes. Church had no effective redress. He subsequently established himself in Washington, D.C., and was active in national Republican politics. He died of a heart attack on April 17, 1952.
Annette E. Church and Roberta Church, The Robert R. Churches of Memphis: A Father and Son Who Achieved in Spite of Race (1974); Gloria B. Melton, “Blacks in Memphis, Tennessee, 1920-1955: A Historical Study” (Ph.D. diss., Washington State University, 1982)