The church remains the last bastion of segregation in America not primarily due to prejudice but because of power, says civil-rights advocate and author Will Campbell.
“Integration in religion is going to be the last thing, I think, to go,” Campbell said in a Friday interview at his home in Mt. Juliet, Tenn. “And it’s not altogether the prejudice of white folks, and it’s not really the prejudice of black folks, but there is a realm of power, of accomplishment, that the average First Baptist Church of New Orleans or Magnolia, Mississippi, or whatever is not going to hire a black pastor in my lifetime or yours. They’re not going to do it. And the black pastors know that, so they say, ‘We’re not going to go there.'”
The interview was for an upcoming DVD on Baptists and race being produced by the Baptist Center for Ethics. It will be the fifth educational DVD released by the Nashville, Tenn.,-based BCE for individual viewing and/or group study. Previous DVD titles include “Good Will for the Common Good: Nurturing Baptists’ Relationships With Jews,” “Golden Rule Politics: Reclaiming the Rightful Role of Faith in Politics,” “The Nazareth Manifesto” and “Always … Therefore: The Church’s Challenge of Global Poverty.”
An ordained Baptist preacher, Campbell was the only white person present when Martin Luther King formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to protest segregated busing in Montgomery, Ala. He marched with the Little Rock Nine to integrate Central High School in 1957. He is generally acknowledged to have been the inspiration for the Rev. Will B. Dunn character in the “Kudzu” comic strip by the late Doug Marlette.
Campbell, 83, has spoken out on other social issues, protesting the Vietnam War and opposing the death penalty, but he is best known for his role in the civil-rights movement. Even in that realm he has sparked controversy, like when he ministered to members of the Ku Klux Klan and delivered a paper at a 1995 symposium on Elvis Presley discussing “redneck” as a racially derogatory term.
Campbell said 11 o’clock Sunday morning remains the most-segregated hour in America largely because preachers–both black and white–want it that way.
“We’re talking about integration of jobs, schools, buses–but not in church, because we run that,” he said. “People do not want to give up positions of power.”
“We don’t mean what we say when we want to get rid of segregation,” Campbell said. “We want to keep it when it’s to our advantage.”
“This should be the normal place where prejudice no longer reigns supremely,” he said. “It should be in the churches, but it’s not.”
Campbell said when a preacher delivers a pulpit message of reconciliation toward others because people are already reconciled to God: “He’s lying ¦. He doesn’t want to go that far with it.”
Campbell said racism “is an evil thing that is still profitable to a lot of people,” including the church.
“Just go in there and look on Sunday morning,” he said. “See how many blacks you have and how many whites you have.”
“There’s black churches and there’s white churches, and that’s racism,” he said. “There used to be white jobs and black jobs, black schools and white schools. A lot of that disappeared, but now how long it will take for that to disappear? I have no idea–not in my lifetime I’m sure, or yours, which is too bad.”
“We would hope that where the message of reconciliation was first heard that would have been the first place that would break down, but it didn’t happen that way,” he said.
Campbell confessed that he himself isn’t color blind. He notices a mixed-race couple walking down the street but pays no attention to a black or white couple doing the same thing. “That’s racism,” he said. “Why do I notice that?”
He said he really has no solution for the problem of racism, other than “maybe for it just to die.”
“Racism is far from dead in American culture,” he said. “At least it’s not the way it was when I was a child.”
Campbell is author of books including Brother to a Dragonfly, a finalist for the National Book Award; Forty Acres and a Goat and The Convention: A Parable, an allegory based on conflict between moderates and fundamentalists in the Southern Baptist Convention released in 1988.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.