For the average Southern Baptist living in the election year of 1968, the world seemed to be crumbling. The civil rights movement had resulted in the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis that spring, and tensions were high. Kentucky state paper editor C.R. Daley wondered in an editorial, “Will Southern Baptists Fiddle While America Burns?”
There were also fears that Southern Baptist college students might be on the march. When word came that students at the University of North Carolina had formed “Baptist Students Concerned” to “wake up” the SBC at Houston to “the vital issues,” many Southern Baptists braced themselves for another takeover as had occurred at Columbia University.
Across the convention, leaders were realizing that some kind of official SBC resolution, with broad representation and view, was necessary. Daley again wrote: “Southern Baptists in Houston should … come forth with a loud and clear voice sounding our convictions on human rights. This voice should be so sharp and strong that no one hearing it could ever doubt where we stand.”
In Nashville, James Sullivan and Clifton Allen of the Baptist Sunday School Board, along with Foy Valentine of the Christian Life Commission and SBC President H. Franklin Paschall, met with other key leaders. They decided that Allen and Valentine would write the first draft of a statement. After further revision, a 1,000-word “Statement Concerning the Crisis in Our Nation” emerged which was subsequently endorsed by 67 people.
All SBC agency executives, state executive secretaries and editors were invited to sign the statement, and by the eve of the convention the number had grown to 71. Valentine remarked to a Newsweek reporter, “Southern Baptist officialdom is moving away from its old racist origins. The culture here is finally being rejected in favor of Christ.”
In Houston, opinion was not to be as unanimous. The convention’s executive committee, meeting prior to the opening session, wrangled for five hours before reaching agreement. An eight-member sub-committee was named to rework the statement. It chose to soften the section “We Voice Our Confession” and to reject a recommendation for a “task force” in favor of Home Mission Board implementation. The revised statement passed the executive committee without opposition.
When James L. Pleitz of Florida introduced the crisis statement in convention session as recommendation 24, the chair ruled that it be referred to the Committee on Order of Business and rescheduled. When the time for discussion finally arrived, an amendment encouraging “respect for the person and property of others” passed, while an amendment denouncing the “infiltration of communism” into the civil rights movement failed. After other attempts to amend and to table failed, the statement was approved by a vote of 5,687 for and 2,119 against.
Reaction to the crisis statement was quick and varied. Baptist Record editor Joe T. Odle bragged that no Mississippian had signed the original statement, and state paper editors in Alabama and Oklahoma also emphasized the “radical revision” of the original draft. Texas leaders were split in their enthusiasm with John J. Hurt, Paul Stevens and R. Alton Reed offering early endorsement, and Executive-Secretary T. A. Patterson and many pastors insisting that changes had been necessary. Editors in Kentucky, Georgia and North Carolina were perhaps most enthusiastic.
Beyond the SBC, Newsweek declared that the crisis statement called for the integration of all Southern Baptist churches, and Time heralded the statement as a call for open membership, better housing, employment and education for blacks. While Newsweek was more general in ascribing the statement’s passage to SBC leaders, Time credited approval to SBC President Paschall, “who had to face loud and sometimes bitter opposition in pushing it through.”
What proved especially perplexing for many journalists was not the passage of a racial statement, but the simultaneous election of conservative W.A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, as convention president. Newsweek was quick to point out that this was the same Southern Baptist who had said “almost everything to me is either right or wrong.” Time was equally surprised over Criswell’s election, especially in light of what it called “the spirit of the declaration.”
The Christian Century, while unsure where the elected leadership would take this progressive, new agenda, nevertheless commended Southern Baptists: “To its credit the Houston meeting … approved the strongest social action statement in the SBC’s history—an urgently worded appeal for efforts to correct the national crisis.”
Shortly after the Houston convention, 32 agency heads and program leaders met in Atlanta to begin charting the crisis statement’s implementation. Home Missions magazine reported that Southern Baptists had “grappled with the soul of America” and now stood at the “crossroads” of a new identity.
Those would prove to be prophetic words, prompted—ironically—by one of the high watermarks of progressive SBC social action.
John M. Finley is senior minister of First Baptist Church, Savannah, Ga.
Read the 1968 Statement Concerning the Crisis in Our Nation.