"He was a civil rights fighter," said Rev. Phil Noble, a friend of Reynolds and author of a book about Anniston's civil rights movement.
Outside of Anniston, Reynolds is known primarily for trying to check out a book. In September 1963, the Missionary Baptist minister was beaten by a mob of angry white men when he dared to walk up the steps of Carnegie Library in Anniston, in hopes of becoming its first black customer. His injuries confined him to bed when fellow clergymen successfully integrated the library the next day.
In Anniston, Reynolds was best known as a fixer of local problems. He pastored the same church, Seventeenth Street Missionary Baptist, for nearly half a century. For many of those years, he also ran the Community Action Agency, an anti-poverty agency.
"Hundreds of people have told me how he helped them get a job, or helped them get a house,"said Rev. E. Steven Richardson, the current pastor of Seventeenth Street.
Strong and aggressive
For a preacher, old friends say, Reynolds was often a man of surprisingly few words.
"He was a strong, I wouldn't say silent type, but he chose his words well," Noble said. "He wasn't glib like a lot of people."
He was a veteran of the pulpit when he came to Anniston in 1960. Born in Chambers County in 1931, Reynolds preached his first sermon at age 17, and went on to Clark College in Atlanta and Interdenominational Theological Seminary before arriving in the Model City.
From the beginning, he had a simple message for Anniston: it was time to integrate.
"I thought he was very aggressive," said Rev. Pequer Q. English of Greater Thankful Baptist Church, who met Reynolds in 1960 and last saw him a few weeks ago. "He was more aggressive than most people at the time."
Four years had passed since the Montgomery bus boycott, and most Anniston institutions were still segregated. Reynolds formed the Anniston Improvement Association, a group that later became the Anniston branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to push for change.
Reynolds' insistence on change shaped Anniston's unique approach to the civil rights era. While other cities saw white city leaders squaring off directly against black civil rights marchers, Anniston appointed a bi-racial Human Relations Council intended to ease the city into integration without violence.
"The goal was to go fast enough that the black community would continue to cooperate and slow enough that the white community would accept it," said Noble, a white minister who served on the council with Reynolds.
The council had a plan to quietly integrate institutions across the city. By 1963, Noble said, they'd already talked local five-and-dime stores into getting rid of "white" and "colored" water fountains — a process that was made easier because the stores were owned by out-of-state companies.
Next came the Carnegie Library. Working with library officials, Noble said, the council planned to have Reynolds and two other black ministers enter the library and check out books on a Sunday afternoon.
"We picked Sunday because we thought it was quiet," Noble said. "It turned out to be a mistake, because it was a day when the hoodlums had nothing to do."
When Reynolds and the others showed up, a mob of white people were there, armed with chains, sticks and knives. The ministers retreated, but Reynolds got the brunt of the abuse, and wound up with injuries that confined him to bed for days.
On Monday, the ministers returned, without Reynolds and with a police escort. African Americans were never again banned from the library.
The council went on with its plan over the years, integrating the municipal golf course and getting black officers on the police force for the first time, Noble said.
Reynolds grew impatient with the pace of the city's progress. In 1964, he led a group of black leaders who took out a full-page newspaper ad now known as the Anniston Manifesto, demanding integration immediately.
"We want our freedom and we want it now," the piece read.
Success and controversy
In 1967, Reynolds sent his children to the then all-white Tenth Street Elementary School, and later sued to end segregation in the entire Anniston school system. A decade later, he was president of an integrated Anniston Board of Education.
By the 1980s, he was on the national board of directors of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — a sign of his status as a crucial leader in the civil rights movement.
With success came controversies. Reynolds headed the Community Action Agency, a group created to combat poverty in Anniston. In 1996, he was ousted from leadership in a court battle. An audit had found the group more than $500,000 in arrears, and in possession of a limousine. His lawyers at the time said Reynolds had been the victim of election-year persecution by public officials.
The agency's current staff declined to discuss Reynolds with The Star Monday, saying they'd all been appointed long after his departure.
Reynolds kept up his work as a civil rights advocate, joining in protests in Wedowee in the 1990s after a high school principal allegedly told a student he'd cancel the prom to stop interracial dating.
He retired as minister in 2009, but his successor said Reynolds was still very much a part of the church even after retirement.
"He's been here 50-plus years," Richardson said. "There's going to be a huge hole in the congregation."
Richardson and English both said Reynolds had been ill for some time. But even with his health struggles, Reynolds managed to get involved in politics. Anniston City Councilman Seyram Selase said the civil rights leader took time to meet and encourage him during his run for the council last year.
"He was full of wisdom," Selase said. "I would encourage young people to sit down and listen to people of his generation, while they're still with us."
Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.