Though Southern Baptists were not known for their advocacy of racial justice 60 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. once told a fellow black Baptist minister that the 1957 Southern Baptist Convention president “suffered with us” in the cause of civil rights.
King’s reference was to the late U.S. Rep. Brooks Hays, D-Ark., who served as SBC president from 1956-58. After helping to mediate a conflict over integration at Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., Hays lost his bid for reelection to a ninth term in Congress to a write-in segregationist candidate.
Six years later, Hays was serving as special assistant to President John F. Kennedy, and he walked by the door of a room in the White House where King was sitting as he waited to meet with the president. “Mr. Hays,” King called out, according to an oral history of Hays by Ronald Tonks.
Hays stopped, and King, turning to the Baptist minister who accompanied him, said, “Mr. Hays has suffered with us.”
That statement, Hays said, was “a reference to the Little Rock experience and my defeat.” He added, “I can’t remember anything else he said … I never could forget that.”
Hays the mediator
In 1957, Little Rock’s school board stood ready to begin court-ordered desegregation of local public schools, beginning with Central High. But Gov. Orval Faubus, fearing violence and convinced a majority of Arkansans opposed integration, deployed the Arkansas National Guard to prevent nine black students from entering the school.
As tensions escalated, Hays helped organize a meeting between Faubus and President Dwight Eisenhower. Hays also served as a go-between for state and federal officials for two weeks, hoping for peaceful desegregation, according to his memoir “A Southern Moderate Speaks.”
When violence broke out, Eisenhower ordered the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division to enforce integration, and many segregationists saw Hays as a crucial foe of their cause.
During the conflict, King sent Eisenhower a telegram urging “a strong forthright stand.” Following the president’s deployment of the 101st, King wrote in another telegram, “I wish to express my sincere support for the stand you have taken to restore law and order in Little Rock … Spiritual forces cannot emerge in a situation of mob violence.”
The 101st remained at Central from mid-September until December, Hays wrote. Federalized National Guard troops didn’t leave until the end of the school year.
The episode left Arkansas Baptists divided.
Pastors of three churches that cooperated with the Arkansas Baptist State Convention signed a letter condemning Faubus’ deployment of the National Guard, and one pastor joined a coalition commending the governor, the Arkansas Baptist newsjournal reported.
Arkansas Baptist editor Edwin McDonald editorialized that “since the race issue is one that finds our Baptists of the state on the fence and on both sides of the fence … we are taking no stand either for or against integration.”
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SOURCE: Baptist Press