Baptist Press on Tuesday devoted a 1,770-word tribute to Rosa Parks, a black Christian woman credited with starting the civil rights movement in 1955.
Commenting on her death at age 92, several Southern Baptist leaders praised Parks as a courageous woman who changed a nation.
But history records a different reaction from white Southern Baptists at the time. A 1999 essay by Andrew Manis, then at Mercer University, described Southern Baptist resistance to the civil rights movement.
The title, “Dying From the Neck Up,” was from a 1956 quote by W.A. Criswell denouncing liberals who sought the end of Jim Crow. “Let them sit up there in their dirty shirts and make all their fine speeches. But they are all a bunch of infidels, dying from the neck up,” said the Dallas pastor, who went on to become SBC president and spiritual father of the “conservative resurgence.”
Manis said that while current Southern Baptists are far from liberal on issues related to race, virtually no one still holds the hard-line stance that compelled many to oppose desegregation in the 1950s. The SBC adopted a resolution on racial reconciliation confessing past racism in 1995.
And because of “progressive elites” that ruled the Christian Life Commission, Manis said, the denomination on occasion passed resolutions on race relations that made them look more progressive than Southern Baptists often were on the local level.
By refusing to give up her seat on a bus in 1955, Parks sparked the Montgomery bus boycott that propelled Martin Luther King to national prominence. At first, Manis said, most Southern Baptist spokespersons kept their criticism of King private, at least until after his death, when criticism began to emerge more regularly in Baptist media.
One exception was Henry Lyons, pastor of HighlandAvenueBaptistChurch in Montgomery, Ala., who used a weekly radio broadcast to defend segregation with the Bible. Significantly, Manis observed, Lyons was elected president of the Alabama Baptist Convention in 1955 and 1956.
After the Montgomery bus boycott’s successful close and founding of the mostly black Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, Manis said most SBC agency heads, with the exception of Foy Valentine at the Christian Life Commission, tried to remain neutral on race issues.
After helping to negotiate a solution to the impasse over desegregation of CentralHigh School in Little Rock in 1957, U.S. Congressman and SBC president Brooks Hays called on Southern Baptists to embrace the cause of integration. The following year, convention messengers sought to pass a resolution commending Hays for his stand on integration, but segregationist sentiment was strong enough to force deletion of that part of the statement.
By 1961, King had risen as unrivaled leader of the civil rights movement and perhaps the most hated man in the South. That April, Henlee Barnette and other professors at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary learned King would be preaching at a black Baptist church in Louisville and invited him to speak in the seminary chapel and lecture in a few classes.
King received a rare standing ovation after his April 19 chapel address, and some faculty and administrators asked about his interest in joining the seminary’s preaching faculty.
Away from the ivory tower, however, news of the visit met more criticism. Several congregations voted to withhold financial contributions from the seminary. The controversy was strong enough, Manis reported, to force the seminary’s trustees and president to issue a public statement of regret over King’s visit.
During the watershed 1963 civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Earl Stallings, pastor of the city’s First Baptist Church, joined the small contingent of ministers who criticized King and the movement in an open letter in the Birmingham News. King responded with his classic, “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” defending the movement.
That fall, when desegregation of Birmingham’s public schools began, the county sheriff asked ministers to use their pulpits to call for order and peace. Many white ministers did, but others called on parents to keep their children out of integrated schools. After one minister’s speech, high school students stormed the mayor’s office waving Confederate flags, dropping lighted cigarettes on the carpet and standing on the mayor’s desk.
The next morning a bomb exploded at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which had been the center of demonstrations, killing four young girls as they studied a Sunday school lesson.
The following week a member of the SBC Executive Committee proposed a resolution of support to the pastor and membership of the Sixteenth Street Church. The Executive Committee not only defeated the resolution, Manis said, but instructed Baptist state newspaper editors to remain silent on debate about the resolution.
Most Southern Baptist newspapers avoided specific mention of King, Manis said, until his assassination on April 4, 1968.
While some ministers and editors lamented King’s death, others leveled harsh criticism. Responses from laypersons were even more vitriolic. One wondered why King did not go preach the gospel in Africa, “the home of his ancestors, where they still live like savages.”
Even theological moderates like Oklahoma City pastor Herschel Hobbs, known to many as “Mr. Southern Baptist,” were critical of King. In a letter to Alabama editor Leon Macon, Hobbs expressed the private opinion that King was a “rabble rouser” and a “troublemaker.”
In 1968 the Southern Baptist Convention made an official response to the racial crisis in America, in effect a response to the King assassination, without mentioning him by name.
By November 1968 a survey by the Home Mission Board revealed that only 11 percent of Southern Baptist churches would admit African-Americans. Later that month the SBC Crisis Statement was reaffirmed by only eight state Baptist conventions, none of them in the Deep South.
After the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, desegregation began to become a reality in the South. Most white Southerners, Baptists included, gradually came to accept it, but those with strong misgivings developed segregated private schools called “Christian academies” utilizing church facilities.
Public controversy over the civil rights movement remained until the late 1980s, when Curtis Caine, a trustee of the SBC Christian Life Commission, made statements calling Martin Luther King a fraud and saying apartheid “doesn’t exist anymore, and it was beneficial when it did.”
Today local churches that commemorate the Martin Luther King National Holiday are mostly black.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.