To tell the story of the American Civil Rights Movement is to tell, largely, an African-American story. The movement originated in the African-American community, the leadership of the movement was overwhelmingly African-American and most of the foot-soldiers were African-American.
When you look at the South, the African-American presence—and the white absence—is even more striking. Very few native white southerners supported the civil rights movement in thought, much less in deed.
Very few, however, does not translate into none. There is a story of white, faith-based involvement in the struggle for civil rights for all citizens. It is an important and increasingly recognized story. Small numbers of white southerners became involved in the fight for equal rights. Many of these people did so out of their distinct Christian worldview.
Dorothy Tilly grew up the daughter of a Georgia Methodist minister in the 1880s and 1890s. After graduating from Macon’s Wesleyan College and marrying a businessman, Tilly settled into an active role as a leader in her Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Scenes of Black poverty served as an awakening for her view of social and racial injustice, and Tilly expanded her involvement toward improving the social conditions of southern Blacks.
By the 1930s, she developed a particular desire to eliminate lynching. She served as a leader in the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, and later founded the Fellowship of the Concerned, an organization of whites and blacks that sought to end lynching. Tilly faced bomb threats from the Ku Klux Klan for her courage, a courage that led her not only to support civil rights, but also to reject the pull of white southerners to support the status quo on race.
While Clarence Jordan of Talbotton, Ga. was in the doctoral program at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he and his wife, Florence, decided to create an Anabaptist-inspired commune in their native state. Although a dominant goal was to recreate a New Testament form of communal ownership, Jordan also embraced pacifism and racial equality.
In its early years, Koinonia Farm, founded in 1942, was best known for teaching modern agricultural techniques to area farmers (Jordan studied agriculture at the University of Georgia).
The farm was an interracial venture, however, and area residents soon boycotted it and targeted it for physical attacks. The residents, including Jordan, were voted out of Rehobeth Baptist Church, Jordan’s childhood congregation. Ironically, it was the Christian faith, and the Baptist movement in particular, that motivated Jordan to take his stand.
When Will D. Campbell arrived at the University of Mississippi in 1954, he thought his position as director of religious life would be much less stressful and more fulfilling than his short pastorate in Taylor, La. The Amite County, Mississippi native had deep roots in the South, but his formal education at Wake Forest and Tulane and his theological education at Yale left him looking for something that he thought would be more enlightening than a small town pastorate.
His years in the military during WWII, though, caused him to see race in ways other than the traditional view of white southerners. Campbell attended and graduated from Yale Divinity School with hopes of becoming involved in racial reconciliation in the South.
Life at Ole Miss, while more “exciting” than the pastorate, was neither less stressful nor more enlightening for Campbell. The young campus minister wanted to draw attention to the Supreme Court’s Brown decision, handed down shortly before he arrived on campus. When Campbell sought to make the Religious Emphasis Week more than “Be Good to God Week” by bringing pro-integration ministers to speak, he became the subject of harassment and threats and ultimately lost his job.
His voice is significant because he was one of the first white southern ministers to speak out in support of integration after the Brown decision. After leaving Ole Miss, Campbell worked for a number of years for the National Council of Churches as field observer, traveling to sites across the South where civil rights workers were subject to violence. His task was to view the violence and provide a white legal witness in a court system that often rejected black testimony.
Campbell was also the only white present at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and he was involved in the desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School.
There are other stories of white involvement and support of the civil rights movement. But, what are we to do with these stories? What can we learn from discovering that Will Campbell was a native white southerner who rejected southern social mores about race and embraced integration in allegiance to the Gospel?
We must be careful to learn the right lesson. These stories story must not lull us into thinking that most southerners really were progressives on race. We will not discover, by learning about white involvement, that there really were lots of whites who supported integration, we don’t know about them yet.
No, there really were NOT many whites who were involved, but there were some. We will also discover that in a literal sense, these whites were not vital to the movement. The civil rights movement would have gone forward without the involvement of white southern Christians.
Their presence is important, not so much for what they actually did, but for the symbolic value. They remind us that a faithful remnant was present in the white church of the South, a remnant that can still call us today to be authentic witnesses in the face of great moral issues.
Mel Hawkins is assistant professor of religion at Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tenn. He is also the author of “Will Campbell: Radical Prophet of the South.”
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