Monday, August 26, 2013


This week marks the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Civil Rights.  I recall hearing about it on the news in 1963 -- especially the fears that it could turn into one of the greatest race riots of all time.  It didn't.

I lived in the North in Michigan.  I had graduated from an integrated high school, where I had a few friendly acquaintances with black kids, but no really close relationships.  At the time I lived in an all white neighborhood and worked in an all-white engineering department of a very mildly integrated company.  And I attended an all-white church, that we considered a Bible-believing church.

The events that were occurring in the Deep South seemed as far away from me and my friends as the events occurring today in Syria and Egypt.  Yes, we recognized that injustice was being done, but none of us good Christian folks considered it to be anything worthy of our concern.  And certainly none of us saw the need for our getting involved in the black people's struggle for their rights.

Our churches were mostly silent about these matters.  While we were puzzled by the hatred shown by our white southern brethren, we did not feel that we had any business getting involved or even voicing our opinions.  We knew there were northern white people, even clergy who had gone south to lend their support to the black struggle, but we were assured that they were "modernists," "liberals," radical Catholic priests and Jews; some were undoubtedly communists or socialists.  And, of course, the black church leaders of the civil rights movement were at best "troublemakers" and at worst, communists.

Our experiences with and exposure to Jim Crow were limited.  It wasn't practiced in our home town so it didn't concern us.  Even my time spent in the south as a Marine Corps reservist didn't cause it to sink in.  We had black guys in our company and we got along.  I never wondered why they didn't want to go to town for a burger or a beer.

Why did we hear sermons against drinking, smoking and dancing, but never against racial hatred?  Why were we preached at to love one another, but never told that that love was to cross racial lines?  Why did we sing, "Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in His sight," when there were no children but white children in our church?  Why did we support sending missionaries to preach the gospel to the black people in far-off Africa, yet never see black people enter our church doors to hear the gospel?

It wasn't until I and my family moved south with a job change that I began to see the hypocrisy of our fundamentalist racism.  Houston was one of the few cities in the south that had quietly begun to change.  It was there that I first met Christians who were able to talk openly about race.  Some were old-time racists, but a few saw the necessity for change.

I suppose we can justly blame the white churches in the south for their support of racism and Jim Crow laws.  They undoubtedly deserved much of the blame.  Some still hold the same racist views their fathers did.  But much of the blame also lay with the write evangelical churches in the north, if for no other reason than our silence.

We failed to see the church as pictured by Paul, " ... where there is neither Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and in all" (Colossians 3:11).

Today we celebrate the achievements of the Civil Rights movement as though we had something to do with it.  I wonder, have we really repented of our unconcern and passive racism?


Canadian Atheist said...

Very thought provoking post, Bill. It's definitely one of my favorites.

John Kulp said...

Good timely post Bill. If you haven't seen it yet, you MUST see "The Butler". It is a touching perspective on the human impact of those years.

I, a fellow "yankee" from northern Indiana, came into the situation in the South when I went off to college in Arkansas in the fall of 1963. At that place and time the murder of a black man by a white man was still not considered to be a crime. "Christian" students at my school laughed about the assassination oI Dr. King. I stood virtually alone against what I saw and I received the two responses you describe. Anger and abuse from southern white "Christians" and silence from northern white "Christians".

A few years ago I read the "Manhattan Declaration" where credit is given to conservative christians of the 60's for standing for civil rights and embracing Dr. King. The truth I experienced was not simply different, it was the opposite.

M Jernigan said...

Thank you for your post. I'm so glad I belong to a church that is the most multicultural church I've ever attended. My pastor said it's the very picture of how God see's His bride...all one body, one people, one church.

Bill Ball said...

Thanks M. It's encouraging to know that there are churches where the unity of the Body is practiced.

Christian said...

Very interesting post, I think many people not just theists disregarded what was happening during the civil rights movement. It is often easier to avoid the big questions than face them.

Sherry Ball Schoenfeldt said...

Reminds me of what Dr King said in his letter from the Birmingham jail:
"I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; "