Southern Baptist Convention Marks 50th Anniversary of Civil Rights Act as “One of the Most Ethnically Diverse Denominations In America”

The Reverend Fred Luter Jr.
The Reverend Fred Luter Jr.

When President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act in 1964, it codified into law provisions that many Southern Baptists had a reputation for opposing — bans on racial discrimination in public accommodations and government programs.

But amid the opposition, there were pockets of Southern Baptists working for racial justice and equality. On the legislation’s 50th anniversary, Baptist leaders are celebrating the fact that those pockets of activism have blossomed into a convention-wide emphasis on multiethnic cooperation to fulfill the Great Commission.

“The Civil Rights Act helped tear down so many walls that racial prejudice had constructed between members of the human family,” Frank S. Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, said. “My passion is to see every man, woman, boy and girl trust in Jesus Christ and become active members of one of our churches … not because it is politically correct, but because every person matters to the Lord.”

Today more than 10,000 of the SBC’s 46,000 churches are non-Anglo, comprised of a broad diversity of racial and ethnic members. About 15 percent of presidential appointments to committees were from non-Anglo ethnic and racial groups over the past two years, and nearly 100 members of racial and ethnic minority groups have served in SBC leadership positions.

About 400 North American Mission Board missionaries identify themselves as non-Anglo. Approximately half of SBC church plants are classified as non-Anglo, and nearly 15 percent of churches registered to assist in the Send North America church planting emphasis are from various racial and ethnic subsets of American culture.

All this led Page to call the SBC “one of the most ethnically diverse denominations in America.”

A divided convention
Fifty years ago that wasn’t the case. The SBC met in Atlantic City, N.J., in May, ahead of President Johnson’s July 2 signing of the Civil Rights Act. At the annual meeting, the SBC’s Christian Life Commission — precursor to the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission — presented a recommendation that the convention pledge its support for civil rights legislation. When time came to vote on the recommendation, a pastor from Louisiana offered a substitute motion that didn’t say anything about legislation.

The substitute motion, in a standing vote by messengers, was declared defeated, but the convention took a ballot vote because the margin appeared slim. On the ballot vote, the substitute motion was adopted and the CLC’s motion to support civil rights legislation was set aside. When the Civil Rights Act became law, at least three Baptist colleges refused to sign “assurances of compliance.”

But not all Southern Baptists were opposed to the new legislation.

The month after the Civil Rights Act became law, the CLC held conferences at the Ridgecrest and Glorieta conference centers addressing “Christianity and Race Relations.” Speakers were bold in their advocacy of integration, and attendance outnumbered that at any previous CLC conference. More than 3,000 attended the two conferences, with 1,500 copies of the addresses distributed among Southern Baptists.

CLC executive secretary Foy Valentine believed his commission was in step with America’s progressing attitudes about ethnic diversity.

“The fact is that in 1964, there was a new wave of interest in civil rights matters,” Valentine said in a 1976 interview. “The civil rights legislation came on strong with the help of Lyndon Johnson and was passed, and it was the most important move forward for blacks in a hundred years. The commission again was at the blue point of the flame, with regard for social concern, because there wasn’t anybody else in Southern Baptist life that was doing much open talking about this subject of civil rights and race relations.”

Pockets of change
There may have been more open talking than Valentine realized because some pastors and churches were beginning to embrace integration.

In Louisville, Ky., an adjunct professor and a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary — one white and one black — decided to form an interracial ministry conference to meet monthly and discuss race relations in the city. The student, Emmanuel McCall who was black, and the adjunct professor, John Claypool who was white, each convened six pastors of his own race, and the group of 14 met for four months. McCall and Claypool then helped form the Louisville Baptist Interracial Pastors Conference, which met from 1962 to 1968 and included 800 ministers at its zenith.

McCall told Baptist Press the group’s efforts contributed to the relative calm in Louisville regarding racial issues.

“Louisville went through that time without any racial conflict,” McCall said. “Except there was one night when some guy who said he represented [civil rights leader] Stokely Carmichael gathered a group of people in the west end. From somewhere they came up with bricks, and they started a little bit of a riot. But it was the ministers’ conference that said to the chief of police, ‘We don’t know this guy. Get him out of town. Arrest him or whatever.’ And they did. So that was the only incident of any newsworthy note during that period.”

McCall went on to become the first African American on staff at any SBC entity, when he went to work for the Home Mission Board in 1968. Claypool pastored churches in Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas and Mississippi.

Another member of the interracial pastors group, Carlisle Driggers, was pastoring Louisville’s 23rd and Broadway Baptist Church in 1964. The congregation was ahead of its time in terms of racial inclusiveness and felt that the Civil Rights Act “substantiated” what it was seeking to do, Driggers told BP.

“I thought it was way past time for America to have legislation like that,” Driggers said. “I know that it caused a lot of reaction, a lot of folks unhappy about it. But at the same time, my own personal reaction was that I thought it was very much in order. It needed to be done, and I was grateful to be a citizen of America when that legislation was adopted.”

The law “supported what we were attempting to do at that time as a church,” Driggers said.

A white congregation, 23rd and Broadway decided to stay in its longtime location even though the community around it was changing racially and culturally, with many blacks moving into the neighborhood. The decision to stay included a commitment to reach everyone around the church regardless of race.

The congregation ministered to hundreds of blacks during weekday programs for the community, and eventually 10 to 20 percent of its Sunday worshippers were African Americans. The church’s outreach was so successful that the HMB appointed a missionary to work specifically with 23rd and Broadway — the first time the board appointed a missionary to an individual church.

Still, when a black worshipper, Brenda Owens, presented herself for membership in 1966, Driggers felt a bit nervous, not knowing how the congregation would react. He received her during the invitation and called for a vote on whether to accept her as a member. After a vote without opposition, a thankful Driggers bowed his head to lead the closing prayer. He says he’ll never forget what he saw when he opened his eyes.

“Our people, while I was praying, were getting up out of their seats, and they were lined up all the way from the front of the church to the back door — lined up to come forward and speak to Brenda. It was a precious, precious moment,” Driggers said.

Driggers gained a reputation for his work in interracial ministry, so much so that First Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., brought him on staff in 1969 to help with a tumultuous integration process. He went on to become executive director of the South Carolina Baptist Convention.

Some Southern Baptist institutions were also ahead of their times. All six SBC seminaries accepted black students well before 1964. Southern Seminary and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, both admitted black students in the 1940s, with Garland Offutt becoming the first black graduate of any SBC seminary in 1944 when Southern awarded him a master of theology.

Martin Luther King Jr. preached in Southern Seminary chapel in 1961 to a warm reception by faculty and students — despite objections from some Southern Baptists and eventually an apology from trustees for “any offense caused by the visit of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., to the campus of the Seminary.”

In 1965, Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary students and faculty donated funds to help a student travel from the seminary’s California campus to the civil rights march in Selma, Ala. The student body also sent pro-civil rights telegrams to King and Alabama Gov. George Wallace.

At Southwestern, ethics professor T.B. Maston was a noted champion of civil rights.

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SOURCE: Baptist Press
David Roach

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