A Conversation with Four Historians on the Response of White Evangelicals to the Civil Rights Movement

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Last year, after watching the Selma movie and reading a response by King’s College professor Anthony Bradley, I began to wonder why the white participants in the Civil Rights Movement tended to be liberal Christians, Jews, and Unitarians.

Where, I wondered, were the conservative white evangelicals? Surely not all of them were segregationists.

Did white evangelicals in the South respond to the Civil Rights Movement in different ways from their counterparts in other parts of the United States?

Is it fair to say that the majority not only refused to engage but actively opposed it? If so, what historical forces formed their particular responses and attitudes?

And how did evangelical theologies form or undermine their engagement?

These are the questions I posed last year to several historians who have worked in this area. Their answers are below, some with particular emphasis upon their denominational forebears (whether Southern Baptist or Southern Presbyterian).



Matthew J. Hall
(Ph.D., University of Kentucky) serves as dean of Boyce College, where he also teaches courses in church history and American history. He is co-editor of Essential Evangelicalism: The Enduring Legacy of Carl F. H. Henry (Crossway), and his dissertation was on “Cold Warriors in the Sunbelt: Southern Baptists and the Cold War, 1947-1989.”

* * *

As a historian who is also a Southern Baptist, I am in something of a perpetual quandary. In all of my research on the long history of racial justice and the black freedom movement, I find that my fellow churchmen who supported the cause of justice were more often the exception, not the rule. Instead, my research—and that of historians far more accomplished than me—makes quite clear that white evangelicals throughout the South were overwhelmingly opposed to the civil rights movement. They may have couched their opposition in more genteel ways than the Klan—yes, the White Citizens Councils would do the job—but oppose it they did nonetheless.

A couple caveats here. First, it’s worth noting that the evangelical canopy has always been a broad and unwieldy one. Broad enough to include Anabaptists and Campbellites, Wesleyans and Presbyterians, Pentecostals and Lutherans—we should be leery of speaking of it in monolithic terms. But it does seem that in its most traditional forms, regardless of geography, evangelicals were often those not only skeptically removed from the civil rights movement, but directly opposed to it. There were notable exceptions, of course. And, as noted by historians such as David Swartz and Brantley Gasaway, there has always been a stream within the broader evangelical river that has prioritized social action and justice.

But it does seem self-evident that, in the main, white evangelicals—particularly those in the South—were deeply invested in efforts to either uphold Jim Crow or to try to slow down its dismantling. While a previous generation of historians suggested this was symptomatic of “cultural captivity,” I’m not so sure. In fact, in many cases, it seems that evangelical theology—or at least distorted models of it—were part of the reason segregationist beliefs and structures took shape the way they did. The unfortunate reality isn’t that evangelical theology in the South was muted when it came to racial justice, it’s that it was actively used to undermine justice and to perpetuate a demonic system. And that’s the cruelest historical irony of it all: those who loved the “old rugged cross” were often also those who torched crosses in protest of desegregation.

Why was this? Why did this particular subgrouping of evangelicals seem especially vulnerable to this cultural and theological blindness? It was a malady not unique to southern white evangelicals, but it did afflict them in particularly pronounced ways. Let me try to give some historical reasons.

1. Many white southern evangelicals had a deficient doctrine of sin.

Let me be clear. These evangelicals had a very clear understanding of the personal realities of behavior contrary to revealed biblical norms, or at least a somewhat selective list of them. But where they fell short was in articulating a fully orbed doctrine of sin, one that has deep roots in the Christian tradition and is far more pessimistic about the extent and effects of sin. A classic Protestant understanding of sin might have helped them recognize the ways in which sin infects not only personal individual choices, but also social structures, economic systems, legal codes, etc. But by relegating sin only to the realm of individual choice, it allowed white evangelicals to denounce anything broader as political entanglement that had no connection to Christian ethics or witness.

2. White evangelicals often capitulated to the racist hysteria surrounding fears of intermarriage.

Those who denounced the civil rights movement routinely trotted out the allegation that the cause was fundamentally about “mixing the races” and marrying off blacks and whites. For many southern whites, the thought of their white daughter married and sexually united to a black man was unfathomable. A long and horrendous tradition had developed, citing clumsily applied biblical passages that were purported to demonstrate God’s prohibition of such marriages. Evangelicals should have known better and been immune to such poor biblical interpretation. But when opponents of the civil rights movement tried to delegitimize the movement by “warning” of the secret motives of its leaders, far too many evangelicals were susceptible to their tactics.

3. White southern evangelicals were blinded by their majority status to the injustice around them.

Other historians have noted that blacks and whites often inhabited two different worlds. Southern whites often thought they knew the world of subordinate blacks, assuming all was well in the racial hierarchy. Jim Crow allowed for southern whites—including the large number of them who claimed membership in churches—to sincerely believe that everyone within the system was content. Only a few “troublemakers” ever seemed to voice dissent, and those that did often could end up on the other end of a rope, hanging from a lynching tree due to allegations of some impropriety or questionable criminal allegation. In part, this helps explain why so many southern whites excoriated the civil rights movement as merely the fabrication of a group of “outside agitators” sent in to stir up strife among the otherwise docile and happy black population. While they were eventually disabused of that notion, it seemed to them to be the only rational explanation for the powder keg that seemed to have exploded out of nowhere.

4. White southern evangelicals imbibed and perpetuated the Lost Cause mythology.

Developing at the end of Reconstruction and the closing of the nineteenth century, white southerners constructed memories of the Old South and the Civil War that perpetuated assumptions about white superiority, the necessity of racial segregation, and the seemingly victimized status of the region. It found expression among trained historians, but at the more popular level—one deeply infused with religious meaning—it became even more influential as a form of civil religion. For many southern whites, including evangelicals, it provided a worldview that told them that slavery was an unfortunate institution that would have naturally run its course, that the South was marked by a different chivalrous—and more Christian—moral code than the rest of the nation, that the “War of Northern Aggression” was an unconstitutional incursion into southern states’ rights, and that the South still represented the only great hope for long term American stability and prosperity. Well in place by the 1950s, the Lost Cause mythology inoculated massive numbers of white southerners—including Jesus-loving, gospel-preaching, soul-winning churchgoers—to be leery of anything that suggested that the status quo was characterized by injustice and unrighteousness.

Evangelicals are right to prioritize the work of racial reconciliation and its rooting in the gospel of Jesus Christ. But reconciliation by its very nature requires some sometimes unpleasant conversations and mutual understanding to answer the question, “How did we get here?” I’m hopeful for the future of evangelical racial reconciliation in part because I see a new generation willing to look to the past with honesty and to listen, even when it’s uncomfortable and unpleasant. Even more, I am confident that the gospel that reconciles sinners to God and to one another is as powerful as ever.


Sean Michael Lucas (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is professor of church history at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS, and the senior minister of the historic First Presbyterian Church, Hattiesburg, MS. His books include Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life, J. Gresham Machen, and For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America.

* * *

While it is the case that conservatives in the old Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS, often called “the Southern Presbyterian Church”), taken as a group, opposed the Civil Rights movement, the story is a little bit more complex than that in two ways.

First, there were different positions on how to think about racial integration; and, second, there was also change over time for the movement as a whole.

1. Positions

That there would be differing positions on the most explosive issue to face the American South is not surprising. What perhaps is surprising is that these differing positions are reflected in a generally conservative religious and political subset.

Segregationists

WAGW. A. Gamble, stated clerk of Central Mississippi Presbytery, represented hardline racial intransigence. Featured in Citizen’s Council events in the Jackson area, Gamble frequently defended Jim Crow laws, warning that “it cannot be forgotten that the removal of segregation laws, and the consequent mingling of the races more and more, will inevitably result in miscegenation.” He also held that those who opposed “segregation by law” would be complicit “in developing a mongrel population, a development I believe God disapproves.” Racial traditionalists like Gamble tried to frame their defense of segregation in theological terms, appealing especially to Acts 17:26; however, their most powerful arguments were emotional, playing on white fears of mixed race marriages.

Moderates

BellLNWhile Gamble’s position was likely held by a wide number of southern Presbyterian conservatives, there were other positions. L. Nelson Bell, the long-time associate editor of the Presbyterian Journal and founder of Christianity Today, held what was viewed to be a moderate position. On the one hand, “forced segregation is un-Christian because it denies the rights which are inherent in American citizenship.” In addition, as Bell’s son-in-law Billy Graham demonstrated, the Gospel needed to be preached “to all on an unsegregated basis.” To demand continued legal segregation would undercut the preaching of the Gospel in America and abroad. On the other hand, though, forced integration opened the door to the possibility of race mixing that was unthinkable. Better to do away with the legal barriers for blacks’ participation in American society, but then let Christian love and prudence take its natural course.

Integrationists

hillWEThere were still others, and especially among the younger generation who would take PCUS pulpits in the 1960s, who believed that segregation in society and church was repugnant to the Gospel and that the church should work toward modeling an integrated community. Bill Hill, who pastored West End Presbyterian Church and First Presbyterian Church in Hopewell, Virginia, simultaneously, worked toward racially inclusive meetings, especially in his evangelistic work during the 1940s and 1950s. In many ways ahead of his time, Hill modeled the same race-blind evangelistic imperative as Billy Graham.

Likewise, Donald Patterson, James Baird, and Kennedy Smartt—all members of the steering community that would birth the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) in 1973—all worked toward racial inclusion in their respective ministries. These PCA founders, along with Frank Barker and D. James Kennedy, made it plain that the continuing Presbyterian church would not be a “white man’s church” nor stand for racial solidarity. Like Hill and Graham, these founders believed that the Gospel should produce a racially inclusive church.

2. Changes

This last group represents the second point: that there was change over time on the racial issue for these southern Presbyterian conservatives. While there were very few southern Presbyterian conservative voices in the 1940s urging racial inclusion, by the late 1960s, it was unthinkable to most young conservative leaders that the church would remain racially separated. The question to ask is why: why were the larger theological and cultural arguments for continued racial segregation unpersuasive to the younger leaders who would form the PCA?

Billy Graham

I think the answer comes back to Billy Graham. For southern Presbyterians, Graham represented what they most wanted for their church: a thorough commitment to the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, a gentle and winsome evangelical theology, and a determined zeal for evangelism and missions. When Graham determined in 1952-53 that he could no longer preach the Gospel to segregated meetings because that would represent a betrayal of the Gospel itself, younger southern Presbyterian conservatives nodded their heads in agreement. They too would work toward preaching the Gospel to all men and women regardless of race because the Good News was for all.

But Graham also modeled their thoughts on cultural engagement. Committed to the “spiritual mission of the church,” even these younger southern Presbyterians believed that the way to effect cultural change was through preaching the Gospel. Graham’s crusades brought such social effects, not because he preached a “Social Gospel,” but because he preached the true Gospel—and changed men and women brought about a changed society. By preaching the Gospel to racially inclusive groups like Billy Graham did, southern Presbyterian conservatives hoped that the Gospel itself would produce the “beloved community” that they too wanted for their country. They longed to see an America that reflected the Gospel itself.

Of course, that does not mean that the founders of the PCA or their sons and now grandsons have seen that sort of transformation. Far from it—our own theological beliefs have still been trumped far too often by other deeper-seated commitments to race, class, or region. However, from a historical perspective, this explains why I believe that the PCA—the continuing, conservative mainline successor to the PCUS—must continue to work toward racial reconciliation and inclusion that the Gospel itself demands.


Carolyn Renée Dupont is associate professor of history at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, KY, and the author of the book, Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975 (NYU Press, 2013).

* * *

Simply put, any suggestion that the religion of southern whites aided the civil rights struggle grossly perverts the past. While many evangelicals displayed kindness in their personal dealings with blacks, most also enthusiastically defended a system designed to advantage whites and to correspondingly disadvantage African Americans at every turn. Though every major denomination in the United States embraced the Supreme Court’s Brown v Board of Education decision that declared segregated schools unconstitutional, evangelicals at the local level decried the measure. Indeed, southern evangelicals fought ferociously against any and all efforts to dismantle the system of white supremacy. While my research has focused on evangelicals in Mississippi, much of what I learned would apply to other parts of the South. The unique factors of other states or regions shaped the way events unfolded in those areas.

Ways in Which Evangelicals Resisted Black Equality

Evangelicals resisted black equality in many ways. Some ministers preached an overt biblical sanction for segregation. Most preachers took a more oblique approach, remaining silent about black equality while condemning faith-based civil rights activism as “a prostitution of the church for political purposes.” Most southern Christians did not regard segregation as a sin, and they resented those who criticized their “way of life.” They rejected efforts from their denominations to educate them into more enlightened racial views and frequently withheld funds from agencies in the church who advocated for equality. They sacked pastors who embraced any aspect of the freedom struggle. They formed lay organizations to keep their churches segregated; many individual congregations adopted formal resolutions instructing their deacons to reject black worshippers. When school integration became unavoidable, white evangelicals forsook the public schools in droves in favor of new private schools sponsored by their churches.

Exceptions to the Generalizations

Certainly, we do well to remember the few notable exceptions to these generalizations. Some progressives challenged white supremacy, but these voices remained clustered at the seminaries, denominational headquarters, and on the mission field. Pastors occasionally spoke out, but their congregations often responded with ferocious censure, a reaction that demonstrates the sentiments of the masses. Some white evangelicals initiated noble efforts like rebuilding black churches that white extremists had burned. However, we should not confuse such efforts with advocacy for the end of segregation. As the historian Charles Payne has noted, often these endeavors demonstrate objections “to the use of violence in the defense of white supremacy, not to white supremacy itself.”

Northern Christians and Segregation

Your question raises the issue of northern Christians and their responses to the demise of segregation. Because photographs of events like the Selma March feature white ministers, we often assume that northern people of faith actively embraced the movement. This assumption needs refining. Northern ministers did participate in the southern struggle, but these ministers represented the least evangelical and most “liberal” elements in American religion. They came largely from the ranks of the Episcopal, Presbyterian (UPCUSA), Unitarian, Disciples of Christ and Methodist faiths (and from the “liberals” within those faiths), the very branches of American Protestantism that evangelicals have decried for their misguided theology. Furthermore, clerical support for the movement did not necessarily translate to the support of rank-and-file church members. My own preliminary research into the question of northern Christians’ responses to the movement indicates that a deep lay-clerical divide ran through northern congregations when it came to issues of black equality. Some northern ministers encountered serious opposition from their congregations when they advocated for black equality.

Evangelical Theology

Evangelical theology itself undermined whites’ ability to constructively engage with the demands of black activists. Generally speaking, the most theologically conservative Christians often opposed the movement for black equality most vigorously. Evangelicalism focused overwhelmingly on regenerating the individual and depicted all social problems as merely the sum of individual problems. Thus, they blamed blacks themselves for failing to equal the standards of whites, and could not grasp how segregated and unfair institutions erected insurmountable obstacles to black aspirations. In evangelical thinking, salvation, not social change, offered the answer to black failures and frustrations. However, the salvation of every person in the entire country could not correct the problems of inferior education, limited economic opportunities, discriminatory legal arrangements, and a host of other systems that rendered black Americans second-class citizens. These entrenched and systemic injustices required change in structures, not in individuals.

Moral Suasion and Social Change

Finally, the role that religion played in thwarting the civil rights struggle raises important questions about the effectiveness of moral suasion in creating social change. Moral suasion often proves one of the least effective ways to create change. People too easily distort, circumvent, rationalize, or otherwise dispatch with moral arguments. Individuals with a vested interest in a system—as whites had (and have) in the racial hierarchy—often fail to grasp the evils of these systems and will fight mightily to preserve them. Since whites have benefitted so enormously from America’s racial hierarchy, it should not really surprise us that white religious traditions have bolstered these advantages. Nor should it surprise us that religion did not help pull them down.


J. Russell (Rusty) Hawkins (PhD, Rice University) is associate professor of humanities and history at Indiana Wesleyan University. He is currently finishing a book manuscript titled Sacred Segregation: White Evangelicals and Civil Rights in South Carolina (Louisiana State University Press, forthcoming), and is the co-editor of Christians and the Color Line: Race and Religion after Divided by Faith (Oxford University Press, 2013). He has also begun researching a new project on  the white flight of churches from urban America in the second half of the twentieth century.

* * *

There are two historical narratives about white evangelicals’ role in the civil rights movement; neither is cause for praise.

1. Evangelical Apathetic Non-Involvement with the Civil Rights Movement

I can tell the first narrative succinctly using a set of documents I came across a few years ago while doing research in the archival papers of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). Among boxes of financial statements and press clippings, I came upon a cache of letters that the NAE received in 1964 and 1965 from anxious white evangelicals across the country. These evangelicals were concerned that the NAE was offering support to the civil rights movement, thereby becoming indistinguishable from the (more liberal) National Council of Churches or the (more Catholic) National Catholic Welfare Agency. Those anxious evangelicals needn’t have worried. Contrary to false reports about the NAE throwing its weight behind the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the association had instead come to the conclusion that civil rights “is not the business of the church; so the NAE has strictly stayed out of this area.”[1] The following March, when Martin Luther King Jr. called for ministers from around the country to descend on Selma, Alabama, to support black voting rights, the NAE again demurred, this time stating that the association “has a policy of not becoming involved in political or sociological affairs that do not affect the function of the church or those involved in the propagation of the gospel.”[2]

In the narrative above, white evangelicals were simply a nonfactor in civil rights: although they would not support the meaning or the methods of the civil rights movement, they nonetheless would not actively oppose the movement’s ultimate goals. For many white evangelicals today, this history represents something of a best-case scenario. After all, it is no secret that the overwhelming majority of white evangelicals missed the boat when it came to the black freedom struggle of the 1950s and 1960s. Casting evangelical apathy toward civil rights as the result of naïve or misguided notions about the political nature of the movement, therefore, at least offers an explanation of how white evangelicals could have failed so miserably during the national drama of the civil rights years. This history also offers a shorter road to redemption. If evangelicals’ previous social justice shortcomings were merely the result of failing to see the overlap of the sacred and the secular, the only corrective needed going forward is a broader understanding of which issues the church must engage today.

2. Evangelical Active Opposition to the Civil Rights Movement: Hermeneutics of Segregation

But, there is a lesser known—or lesser discussed, anyway—history of evangelicals’ encounter with civil rights in the American South that must be told given the outsized influence southern evangelicalism has had on the broader American evangelical movement. Unfortunately, it is a much darker story with a more damning legacy. To state it plainly, the majority of southern white evangelicals actively opposed the civil rights movement in its various manifestations in the middle decades of the twentieth century because they saw it as a violation of God’s design for racial segregation.

In researching evangelicals in South Carolina I discovered that these conservative white Christians utilized a biblical hermeneutic of segregation to oppose everything related to racial integration from the 1954 Brown decision to the bussing of public school children in the early 1970s. In their reading of Scripture, God was the author of segregation and therefore demanded evangelical resistance to integration at every turn.

In the public sphere this opposition meant that many evangelicals assisted in organizing Citizens Councils to thwart civil rights initiatives while petitioning their political leaders to stand firm in their segregationist convictions with the assurance that “we in the South will not mix because it is not God’s plan.”[3]

Intramural opposition to racial integration in evangelical circles was even more vociferous. Throughout South Carolina, ministers who suggested integrating their churches were dismissed from their pulpits and when the state’s Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian colleges finally desegregated in the mid-1960s, white evangelicals withheld both their financial support and their children from the institutions. As late as 1969 South Carolina leaders still received letters from constituents reminding them that it was “against [our] religion to mix. It’s in the Bible that you’re not supposed to mix races.”[4] In their public advocacy of God’s desire for segregation, their maintenance of segregated churches, and their fleeing of desegregated public schools, southern evangelicals from the 1950s through the early 1970s demonstrated that the hermeneutic of segregation exerted a powerful force over their thought and actions.

As a growing number of latter-day southern white evangelicals begin pursuing racial justice, recognition that a substantial percentage of their forebears opposed the civil rights movement on religious grounds becomes ever more imperative. A hermeneutic of segregation helped produce today’s society. Achieving racial justice, then, will require evangelicals to grapple with this historical truth and counteract its historical residue. If a hermeneutic of segregation justified white flight, its historical residue makes it possible to view evidence of deeply entrenched residential segregation with an untroubled conscience. If a hermeneutic of segregation justified a retreat to segregated private schools, its historical residue has allowed the resegregation of public schools to proceed unabated. And if a hermeneutic of segregation justified maintaining segregated sanctuaries, its historical residue is profoundly felt in surveys reporting that, while 11:00 Sunday morning continues to be the most segregated hour of the week, most white Christians are just fine with that.

Notes

[1] Clyde W. Taylor to W.R. Kliewer, March 23, 1965, National Association of Evangelical Papers, Box 52, Folder “Civil Rights 1965.” Wheaton College Special Collections, http://archon.wheaton.edu/index.php?p=collections/controlcard&id=132

[2] “Memo for Dr. Taylor,” March 12, 1965, National Association of Evangelicals Papers, Box 52, Folder “Civil Rights 1965.” Wheaton College Special Collections, http://archon.wheaton.edu/index.php?p=collections/controlcard&id=132

[3] Fred Hulon to Strom Thurmond, February 12, 1958, Strom Thurmond Papers, Subject Correspondence Series 1958, Box 24, Folder “Segregation I.”

[4] Betty Watson to Strom Thurmond, October 4, 1969, Strom Thurmond Papers, Subject Correspondence Series 1969, Box 4, Folder “Civil Rights VII.”

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