Southern Baptist Theological Seminary doctoral student David Roach is writing his dissertation under the working title of “The Southern Baptist Convention and Civil Rights, 1954-1995.” These bookend dates begin with the Supreme Court’s ruling against the segregation of public schools and conclude with the SBC’s resolution apologizing for current individual and systemic acts of racism. When he asked if he could interview me, he said that he knew my response would be cordial and candid.
I think what he meant by candid was that I would shoot straight with him, which I interpret as a compliment coming from a reporter for Baptist Press with whom I have had public disagreement. I criticized his 2007 news story about our screening of “Golden Rule Politics: Reclaiming the Rightful Role of Faith in Publics” at the general assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. I wrote a critical editorial about his wife’s 2008 news story about our screening of “Good Will for the Common Good: Nurturing Baptists’ Relationships With Jews” at CBF’s 2008 meeting in Memphis.
I think what he meant by cordial was that I have sought to engage both he and his wife, Erin, in polite, albeit non-superficial, conversation, as opposed to what I suspect they feel when they encounter moderates. I sought out and visited with David in the press room at the New Baptist Covenant meeting in Atlanta, hopefully expressing my convictions with civility. I invited the Roaches to be our luncheon guests at our event in Memphis, an invitation they declined.
Despite knowing my vantage point on the SBC, Roach requested my thoughts about moderate Southern Baptists and racism between 1979 and 1995. He wanted to know what I thought were some of the differences and similarities between moderate and conservative Southern Baptists. He emailed me questions. I emailed him some thoughts and recommended some additional resources and contacts.
Roach’s request dovetails nicely with the release of “Beneath the Skin,” our new DVD on Baptists and racism. While the DVD does not explore the issue through the paradigm of moderate-conservative Southern Baptists, it does examine Martin Luther King’s controversial visit to Southern Seminary in 1961 and the tortured literal reading of the Bible which justified slavery and segregation based upon the so-called “curse of Ham” found in Genesis.
Roach’s interview forced me to think about where moderate and conservatives differ on race. As I wrote to him, “I will forever believe that the conservative takeover had its genesis among the Baptist segregationists, who claimed to read the Bible literally and hated the denominational bureaucracy for its progressive stance on race.”
Beyond that broad claim, I think that Southern Baptists divided over race at three pivotal junctures:
First was the reading of the Bible. Conservatives read the Bible selectively and literally to justify their prevailing racial prejudice and political power. Moderates sought to dethrone the established racial ideology with appeals to the Bible.
When A.C. Miller, executive secretary of the SBC’s Christian Life Commission, presented the agency’s report in 1954 supporting the Supreme Court’s decision, he was immediately challenged. One challenger said, “I believe in emancipation ¦But I do not believe the Bible teaches and I do not believe that God approves amalgamation of the races.”
Another opponent said, “The Old Testament is filled with the admonition of the Lord that we should keep our blood pure.”
Writing later in a CLC publication, Miller criticized the ideology of Caucasian superiority rooted in the “curse of Ham,” calling it a “myth” and “a hoax.” He pointed out that it was found nowhere in the Bible.
Second was moral heritage. Moderate Baptists were heirs to the moral heritage of J. B. Weatherspoon, A.C. Miller, Clarence Jordan, Henlee Barnette and T.B. Maston. They rooted their moral vision in the Bible and spoke against the dominant culture’s racism.
Conservatives were the offspring of the segregationist pastors, who preached against integration and started the church-based Christian schools. W. A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas and father of the fundamentalist takeover, was one such leader. Another was Adrian Rogers, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church of Memphis. Neither took strong stands nor risks to press for cultural reformation on the race front.
Herein is the third difference between moderates and conservatives: speaking up in the fullness of time for racial equality and racial justice. Some moderates took risks; most conservatives played it safe.
Nowhere is that truth more evident in current events than in the 2006 U.S. Senate race in Tennessee between Republican Bob Corker, a white man, and Democrat Harold Ford, a black man. Corker and the Republicans engaged in two racist campaign attacks. First, they darkened a picture in a flier of the light-skinned Ford. Second, they ran a TV ad with a bare-shouldered white woman ”an actress playing a blond Playboy bunny, who winks and whispers for Ford Jr. to “call me.”
Baptist Center for Ethics criticized both ads through editorials on EthicsDaily.com and in the pages of Tennessee newspapers. The SBC leaders played it safe and said nothing, disclosing that their loyalty to the Republican Party exceeded their commitment to racial justice.
Passing a resolution on racial reconciliation 150 years after the formation of the SBC, which acknowledged the role slavery played in the birth of the denomination, is hardly speaking up when it counts.
Skipping the New Baptist Covenant, which brought together black, brown and white North American Baptists in Atlanta earlier this year, shows disinterest in relationships of genuine mutuality and again disclosed more interest in politics and justice.
Nonetheless, having pointed out these sharp differences, one must also note one of the commonalities between moderate and conservative Southern Baptists: both sides need to do much more to advance racial justice and equality.
“Beneath the Skin” is a resource needed in a society and a church where skin color still divides and drives us apart.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.