May 17 is a special day for me. On Monday, May 17, 1954, nine white justices of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) unanimously issued the historic ruling in Brown v. Board of Education which declared racial segregation in public education unconstitutional. That ruling overturned the court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which legally opened the door for Jim Crow segregation in the United States. Ten years after the unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the United States Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which outlawed racial segregation in public accommodations, employment and education.
White Baptists were, by and large, not pleased about ending racial segregation. The Great Commandment to love God fully and love neighbors unconditionally as followers of Jesus somehow did not move them to recognize the heresy of white supremacy on which the whole notion of racial segregation rested. So white Baptist pastors, theologians, religious educators, mission workers and laity in Arkansas (my home state) and elsewhere railed against the SCOTUS decision that outlawed racial segregation.
“White Baptists were, by and large, not pleased about ending racial segregation.”
They preached, studied and sang about God’s love for the world each week. Meanwhile, they systematically, deliberately and cold-heartedly refused to treat black people as equals. In many congregations, white Baptists even misconstrued Scripture in their attempt to justify their racism, white supremacy and the blatant discrimination inflicted on people like me.
I think about May 17, 1954, because white male state legislators and a white female governor in Alabama who claim to be followers of Jesus acted this week to outlaw abortions, even for cases involving rape and incest, and subject persons who perform abortions to prison sentences of up to 99 years. Many of those persons are Baptists.
I think about May 17, 1954, because white voters who say they are followers of Jesus voted in 2016 to elect a known misogynist, bigot and corporate cheat who boasted about refusing to pay taxes to support public services such as national defense, protection of the environment, highways, education, civil rights and justice in the workplace. Many of those persons are Baptists.
I think about May 17, 1954, because white voters who preach, sing and pray about the love of God and the gospel of Jesus rail against granting asylum to immigrants who seek safety in the United States from war, natural disasters and other threats to their lives. Many of those persons are Baptists.
I think about May 17, 1954, because white Baptists who preach and otherwise affirm that the risen Jesus first appeared to women and commissioned them to tell men about his resurrection continue to endorse barring women from preaching to men, teaching men and leading men in congregations, divinity schools and elsewhere.
“When will white Baptists confess that these evils cannot be reconciled with the gospel of Jesus?”
I am unable to disconnect May 17, 1954, and Jim Crow segregation in education from my faith life when white Baptists who claim to follow Jesus in 2019 are actively involved in defunding, privatizing, dismembering and “commodifying” public education.
So, I thank God that on May 17, 1954, the nine white men who decided Brown v, Board of Education rejected white Baptist notions of equality. I thank God that Chief Justice Earl Warren guided them to a decision that struck a blow for justice and against white supremacy, however much that decision displeased many white Baptists.
At the same time, I wonder how much longer white supremacy, racism, sexism, patriarchy, xenophobia, militarism, classism, imperialism and technocentrism will be defining markers of white Baptist thought and behavior. When will white Baptists confess that these evils cannot be reconciled with the gospel of Jesus?
What will convince white Baptists that women are morally and otherwise competent to make their own decisions about whether and when to bear children? If Jesus considered women competent to carry the news about his resurrection to men who then refused to believe it, why do so many white Baptists seem determined to legislate that women are morally incompetent?
These thoughts weigh on me as May 17 approaches. I am glad that they do. I would not like for May 17 to come without celebrating the miracle that happened on that date in 1954 because nine white Justices on the nation’s highest court rejected white supremacy and racism despite the preaching, teaching and other notions of “discipleship” practiced by white Baptists.
And I would not like for May 17 to come without mourning that now, as in 1954, so many marginalized, oppressed and otherwise vulnerable children of God have good reason to question whether white Baptists are trustworthy representatives of God’s love and justice, as represented by a Palestinian Jew named Jesus.