By Andrew Manis
Some years ago, when I taught at Averett College in Danville, Va., my friend Thurman Echols, pastor of the Moral Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Martinsville, often came to speak on the civil rights movement to my American religious history classes. He always brought with him an album displaying his activities. “Lots of people claim they were in the movement,” he wryly reminded us, “but I’ve got the pictures to prove it.”
Fifty years after the famous March on Washington, the movement is much more popular now than it was in real time.
If every parish that claimed to own a fragment of the Cross of Jesus, had actually owned one, the early Church would have been able to build a skyscraper or two. Likewise if every American (or Baptist) who claims to have celebrated Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech had actually supported civil rights, Congress would have been able to pass much more than just the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Baptists do have reason to celebrate the success of the movement. When I overhear comments from cynical students that nothing much has changed in this last half century, I ask: “When was the last time you drove from Atlanta to Nashville and couldn’t find a place with indoor plumbing where you could relieve yourself? It happened to your grandparents all the time.” Thank God such instances rarely if ever take place in contemporary times.
Our actual record of support for the civil rights movement and the right side of the race issue is far from stellar and should be cause for repentance and recommitment.
If white Baptists had historically taken a truly Christian viewpoint on race matters, would 4 million human beings have been enslaved in 1860 in the very shadow of our steeples?
Would the most influential and widely read pamphlet defending slavery on biblical and theological grounds have been written by Thornton Stringfellow, editor of Virginia’s Religious Herald, a Baptist newspaper?
Would slave labor have been worth an estimated $97 trillion, which would have created vast amounts of wealth for African-Americans and their posterity?
Would Americans have lynched almost 5,000 other Americans, often with the blessing and participation of southern church officials.
And if Baptists had supported King, would his 1961 lecture at Southern Seminary have caused such controversy, including at least one state convention that withheld contributions in support of theological education at SBTS?
Wouldn’t a researcher be able to scan Baptist Press for August 1963 and find some reference to the March on Washington?
Instead, one of our hymn titles says it all: “No, Not One.”
If we had supported King, would there be so many free-floating stories about how many white Baptist Americans greeted news of King’s assassination with celebration?
Would that man have angrily and loudly left the sanctuary of a Baptist church in Tuscaloosa right after I mentioned King’s name and launched an “I Have a Dream” whoop of my own?
Would there have been as many letters to editors of Baptist papers vilifying King after his death?
Would such a large minority of messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention have opposed the 1968 Statement Concerning the Crisis in Our Nation, a response to the assassinations of King and Robert F. Kennedy, and which, supported by Christian Life Commission director Foy Valentine and other likeminded SBC “liberals,” became one of several bones of contention in the denomination’s “conservative resurgence?”
Would so many churches have fought and/or split over whether to allow African-Americans into their worship services or membership? Would so many pastors have lost their pulpits because they dared speak gospel truth to the power of white supremacy or the power of white supremacist lay leaders? Or would so many other pastors decide to silence themselves in the interest of self-preservation?
Would so many churches avoid mentioning King any time near the third Sunday in January every year, much less use his birthday as an occasion for a service focused on racial reconciliation?
Would so many bloggers so bitterly complain whenever an editor or an author dares to suggest that now 50 years past King’s brightest moment we still have not embodied the eternal reality Jesus called the reign of God and King called the Beloved Community? [Watch this space in the days to come.]
Yes, the Southern Baptist Convention did indeed lead all American denominations in issuing a formal apology for slavery and segregation. And then the convention followed it up by twice electing an African-American as convention president. For those advances we should all be grateful to God that “we ain’t where we once was.”
Fifty years ago today King dreamed that we as Americans and Christians would “live out the true meaning of our creed.” Since then, Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said that “God [also] has a dream.”
After all these years, it is high time God’s people repented of our efforts, intentional and unintentional, to thwart God’s hopes. Now is the time to help make God’s Dream — finally — come true.