Too soon we forget the terrorism of the 1950s and 1960s. The cross burnings, obscene telephone calls, character assassination and political intrigue on those who believed in and fought for human rights and dignity and stood against bigotry, hate and indifference.
I was reminded of those years when I read of the passing of a man who stood for equality for all races: Charles Wellborn, a native of Alto, Texas, with degrees from Baylor University, Duke University and Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary. Until his retirement in 1992, he was director of Florida State University’s overseas campus in London.
Jody, my wife, described Wellborn as one of the best preachers she ever heard and the clearest voice of conscience among that generation of Baptists. Dr. John Wood, long-time pastor of First Baptist Church of Waco, was mentored in high school by then-seminary student Wellborn. (Wellborn’s roommate at seminary was Howard E. Butt Jr., one of this generation’s best laymen preachers and founder of Laity Lodge.)
Charles Wellborn, 86, died Oct. 1 and was buried Oct. 14, just a few blocks from Seventh and James Baptist Church, the church he pastored after leaving Baylor University.
It was during his 10-year pastorate at Waco’s Seventh and James Baptist Church, adjacent to the Baylor campus, that the church opened its membership to people of all “races and colors.” It was 1958 and Waco still had the stain of hanging Jessie Washington before a huge white crowd in 1916. (It was one of 500 lynchings recorded in Texas from 1880 to 1930.)
Soon after the news that the church welcomed any and all, Wellborn began to receive threatening phone calls. Then a cross was burned on the lawn of the parsonage. It was fast becoming one of the darkest days in America’s church history. It was a time when the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan revived, and other civil-rights villains became bolder.
It was a time when local blacks were turned away from church doors by self-righteous and self-deluded ushers and deacons. Some preached a gospel left over from slavery days. Popular Bible interpretations endorsed white supremacy. There were those who simply “did not want to get involved.” It was a time when many forgot what Jesus said to the Apostle John: “Behold, I stand at the door: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him.” (Revelation 3:20)
It was a time we should never forget. Hard lessons were learned during those days of turmoil. The experience, bad as it was, made the nation and the churches stronger. But, there are still those who would like to go back to those “good old days.” With white Americans fast becoming a minority like their ancestors were at Plymouth Rock and Jamestown, there is a new uncertainty out there. Keeping folks “in their place” is not as easy as once upon a time.
No one likes to recall such disturbing events as those that took place in 1916 and 1958. Others like Wellborn – Presbyterian Robert McNeill, Methodist Dallas Blanchard, Episcopalian rector Duncan Gray, Catholic priest William Warthling and countless Jewish rabbis – stood their ground against congressmen, senators, governors, mayors and even fellow clergy in a fight against segregationists’ attempts to keep the “coloreds” under their storm-trooper-boots-mentality.
Years later, the city of Waco officially apologized for the 1916 lynching, noting: “When you have a deep enough infection and you just open it up a little bit and let air get to it to heal over, it will come back. It will keep coming back until you open it up and you let it heal from the inside out.”
Wellborn continues to speak through his writing. He wrote seven books, two plays and more than 100 articles in scholarly and popular journals. He was a frequent contributor to the independent journal Christian Ethics Today. His was a life of outspoken integrity and service for others. He was a man for his times. We must not forget those men and their contribution to our nation.
Britt Towery is a former missionary to China. He lives in San Angelo, Texas.