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Jesus and Little Rock Central High School made me a moderate.
The tortured history of white Christianity and the civil rights movement captured my imagination when I first became a student at Central in 1990, and provided the most important revelation of my budding political development — Conservative Christians sometimes came out (gasp!) wrong on a major public-policy issue.
Woefully, sinfully, Bible-quotingly wrong.
Moreover, moderate and liberal Christian leaders (as well as leaders of the city's small but prominent Jewish community) were heroes of the 1957 story. They spoke rationally, even prophetically, for tolerance and integration.
Discovering that conservatives could be morally wrong and liberals could be right fixed the trajectory of my ideological development. But, like all heroes of idealistic young people, the moderate-to-progressive saints I canonized came to appear less spotless and more complicated after years of closer study. Still, the story of white religious leaders in the crisis is worth hearing for anyone who believes that faith can lead people to social justice.
One of the first personalities I discovered in my study of the Central High desegregation crisis struck the first, and still most discordant, note of my early political development: Wesley Pruden, who in 1957 was pastor of the now-defunct Broadmoor Baptist Church. Probably better known to historians as the chaplain of the segregationist Capital Citizens Council, Pruden became one of the group's most prominent spokesmen.
In an October 1957 issue of the Arkansas Democrat, the Baptist pastor took out an advertisement under the headline, “Can A Christian Be A Segregationist?” In it, he repeated the dire predictions that many segregationists of the era made — school integration was a plot that would usher in racial intermarriage, soon to be followed by communism. The ad closed with a pseudo-hermeneutical justification: “Our Lord was born into the most segrated [sic] race the world has ever known. Under this system He lived and died. Never did He lift his voice against segregation. Segregation has Christian sanction, integration is Communistic.”
Preaching in this same vein was M.L. Moser, pastor of Central Baptist Church, which was part of an independent Baptist tradition that charted a course to the right of even the Southern Baptists. The leaders of the city's moderate and progressive white Protestant, Catholic and Jewish congregations had called on all houses of worship in Little Rock to hold Columbus Day 1957 services to pray for reconciliation, for “understanding and compassion,” and for resistance to “unthinking agitators” in the midst of the strife over integration. In response, Moser held his own prayer service to petition God for “the transfer of the Negro students back” to their previous, all-black school.
Then there was L.D. Foreman, pastor of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church. On Sept. 23, 1957, the Arkansas Gazette published a front-page story about how ministers at some prominent Little Rock churches were dealing with the crisis. Harold Hicks at Pulaski Heights Baptist Church asked God for “tolerance and understanding.” Aubrey Walton at First Methodist Church asked his congregation, “How do you think Christ would react if He were to walk the streets of Little Rock today?”
Foreman told the newspaper he didn't address the issue in Antioch's service. “My congregation is 100 percent behind me in my opposition to integration,” Foreman added, noting that 29 people had chosen to move their membership to his church. He attributed the new members to his segregationist stance.
These snippets of history started to rattle my fortress of faith in Christian conservatism.
Raised a conservative Southern Baptist, I had been taught by a kindly, white-haired pastor at my home church to trust the authority of ministers. An increasing emphasis on lay submission to pastoral authority in the Southern Baptist Convention — championed by fundamentalists who took control of the denomination from moderates in the 1980s — reinforced that trust.
But I had also been taught, in Little Rock public schools and Sunday school, that God was color-blind and that racial integration was a good thing. This was a dilemma for a kid who thought he had the world all figured out. I thought conservative Baptist pastors had answers to all the problems of contemporary life, but here were three conservative Baptist pastors from the pages of history who had been clearly wrong about the day's most important social issue.
My worldview that had baptized conservatism with God's own imprimatur began to crumble.
The mainstream religious leaders who staked out ground opposite Pruden, Moser and Foreman were those who, today, would be considered religious moderates and liberals. They were people like Episcopal Bishop Robert Brown, Rabbi Ira Sanders of Temple B'nai Israel, Dunbar Ogden of Central Presbyterian Church and Dale Cowling of Second Baptist Church.
Ogden emerged as one of the most insistent and courageous voices during a dark time. As president of the city's integrated ministerial alliance, he spoke out in favor of desegregation — to the point of sitting with Martin Luther King Jr., and the family of Ernest Green, Central's first black graduate, at commencement exercises in the spring of 1958. Ogden eventually lost his pulpit.
Cowling also spoke in favor of re-opening the schools on an integrated basis after Gov. Orval E. Faubus (himself a Baptist), ordered Little Rock's public high schools closed for the 1958-59 school year. Second Baptist established an accredited high school, open to the public, for the students who had been displaced by Faubus' order. (According to church leaders, it was not expressly segregated, although a teacher there at the time said recently he didn't recall any black students enrolling at what came to be known as “Baptist High.”)
Congressman Brooks Hays, a longtime member of and Sunday school teacher at Cowling's church, was a devout Baptist who attempted to mediate the impasse between Faubus, a fellow Democrat, and the federal government. Hays began as a centrist on race issues — infamously signing the 1956 “Southern Manifesto,” in which the vast majority of the South's congressional delegation denounced the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed public-school segregation — but he grew more pro-integration as the conflict developed. The congressman's stance cost him his job, when a segregationist write-in candidate, Dale Alford, beat Hays in his 1958 bid for re-election.
During this time, Hays also served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Shortly after his election defeat, Hays called on fellow white Baptists to consider their views on race during his presidential address at the SBC's 1959 annual meeting,
“We must continue to examine, with keen sensitivity, the aspirations of our minority people for a status free from all discrimination and injustice,” Hays said. “This is a part of the Christian gospel, and we must demonstrate that we believe it. We cannot export what we do not have, and if our Christian devotions here are not adequate, our missionaries cannot transmit the Christian message to unsaved masses abroad.”
Hays also challenged the theological arguments of his segregationist brethren.
“Our research in biblical teaching on race has disproved the claim that existing patterns are divinely prescribed,” he said. “Whatever the individual Baptist thinks about legislative policy in this field, it is apparent that scriptural support for state segregation laws cannot be claimed. They did not originate until the end of the 19th century, and a lot of wise and effective work in race relations had been done by our forefathers long before these state laws came out of the political ferment of an unhappy period.”
Another story involves how the congregation known today as Lakeshore Drive Baptist Church evolved. At the beginning of the crisis, Pruden, of the Capital Citizens Council, was an obscure pastor of a relatively small church in the new Broadmoor development, across University Avenue from the campus of Little Rock University (now UALR). A long-running dispute between Pruden and several integrationist members of his church boiled over in December 1958. The pastor forced an ouster vote during a business meeting, when those members weren't present.
Doyne Elder, resident historian of Lakeshore Drive Baptist, said the ejected members immediately organized themselves into a new congregation. This group began meeting in the Broadmoor kindergarten building next door, and organized itself as University Baptist Church.
The humor arising from two ideologically opposed Baptist churches next door to each other was not lost on Tom Logue. At the time, Logue was the Baptist campus ministry director of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention and a member of Second Baptist Church. He later joined the new integrationist congregation.
“We had these two Baptist churches side by side, I mean, just a few feet apart,” Logue recalled, laughing. “One, Broadmoor Baptist — a strong, strong segregationist church — and next to it, University Baptist Church, strong in their doctrine that all people are equal.” Eventually, Pruden's strident rhetoric drove away many more church members. Broadmoor Baptist folded, and the University Baptist congregation bought its building. University Baptist would retain its renegade streak. A dozen years later, the Arkansas Baptist State Convention cast out the congregation for practicing open communion. An interim pastor led the church to change its name to Lakeshore Drive in 1970 in a bid to regain admission to the statewide body.
In 1990, Lakeshore Drive became the first church in Arkansas to begin supporting what would become the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The Fellowship is the national group supported by most of the moderates who lost control of the Southern Baptist Convention to fundamentalists in the 1980s.
The other white Baptist churches in Little Rock that were most amenable to integration in 1957 — Cowling's and Hays' Second Baptist and Harold Hicks' Pulaski Heights Baptist — remain moderate bastions. Both support the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and ordain women.
After retiring from the Baptist State Convention staff, Logue became the first coordinator of the Fellowship's Arkansas branch. He had played a minor role in the integration crisis, having led college students attending the 1957 Baptist Student Union state convention to pass a statement deploring Faubus' segregationist tactics. The Arkansas Baptist State Convention conspicuously avoided addressing the subject in its annual meeting that fall.
Logue also allowed the Women's Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools — which fought Faubus and other segregationists during the school-closing period — to meet in the Baptist Student Center on the UAMS campus. The WEC is the organization credited by historians with doing the most to reopen Little Rock's high schools on an integrated basis. Margaret Kolb, at the time a young mother and member of Pulaski Heights Baptist, was a WEC member. For a while, the group used space in her house for offices.
Kolb said she thought committee members had joined because they “were church women who had a strong sense of right and wrong and a strong sense of responsibility for equal rights, you know.”
Kolb saw her support for integration as faith-based.
“We were building a future for what we considered New Testament thinking,” she said. “Although it was never mentioned and never taught as such, it was obvious to me that's what we were doing. It was challenging of young people to be disciples that followed Jesus' example.”
Kolb's view of Jesus certainly contrasted with that of the segregationists: One news photo of a segregationist march seared into my memory showed a protester holds up a placard reading, “Stop the race-mixing march of the Anti-Christ!” Margaret Kolb's Jesus sounded more like the one I had learned about in Sunday School.
If conservatism produced such misguidedness, I decided after a college course on religion and racism, I wanted nothing to do with it. And if moderate Baptists and other Christians were on the side of right and good during the Central High crisis, then I would be a moderate.
In retrospect, however, many of the white moderates of the Central crisis left something to be desired in standing up for racial justice. The Women's Emergency Committee never dared openly advocate integration. Instead, its members publicly hewed to the line held by much of Little Rock's white business establishment — that integration, while not necessarily desirable, was nonetheless the law of the land. Resisting it meant resisting progress.
Larry Taylor is a recently retired Baptist pastor in Tennessee who was a junior at Central during the 1957-58 year. He said he could find few white religious leaders in Little Rock whose ardor for integration matched the strength of the segregationist sentiments expressed by the Prudens and Mosers on the other side of the clerical fence.
“I think the truth of the matter is that, for white moderates in Little Rock at the time, the connection was not so much between integration and their faith as it was between integration and the law of the land,” he said. “I think most white people understood loyalty and obligation and the law better than they understood the faith implications of what was happening.
“I think that came later for people. Not too many people wanted to embrace integration at that time because their faith persuaded them it was the right thing to do.”
Taylor said he had heard little sentiment for integration among the adults from his home church, Little Rock's First Baptist.
Two Harvard psychologists confirmed this view in a study of Little Rock's mainline Protestant and Jewish clergy during the crisis. As reported in the Sept. 15, 1958, issue of Time magazine, the study determined that, out of 100 clergymen, only eight — including the city's two rabbis — could be classified as “pushers” of integration. They tended to be young (average age 36) and have small congregations. The pastors of Little Rock's largest Protestant congregations — labeled by the study as “powers” — were supportive of integration but did not stick their necks out for it.
Although some — notably Cowling — were highly critical of the study's conclusions, its theme had been mirrored by segregationist preachers.
For example, a statement issued by the Capital Citizens Council on Sept. 24, 1957, and re-printed in newspaper ads, targeted the city's respectable mainstream ministers for their criticism of Faubus. It was directed at ministers who “have repeatedly spoken out in favor of mixing white and Negro children in our public schools,” but noting that these same ministers “have not integrated their own congregations nor have they made any move, or taken any steps in this direction.”
From all this, I came to realize that moderation, theological or political, isn't necessarily the best model for someone wanting to live a life faithful to Christ's gospel. But the fact remains that some white people in Little Rock, moderate though they may have been, were motivated by their faith and took great risk in opposing Faubus.
As with much of history, the lessons of 1957 continue today. If Brooks Hays was willing to lose his congressional seat for the sake of the cause, then perhaps I — and other Christians — should be willing to risk something to stand up for social justice today. Whether the issue is equal rights for gays or humane immigration reform or international economic justice, I can't say for sure. But I pray I'll be able to see it and stick my neck out, before history passes me by.
Rob Marus is a 1993 graduate of Little Rock Central High School. He lives in the nation's capital, where he has served since 2001 as the chief Washington correspondent for Associated Baptist Press.